Technology

Google’s academic links under scrutiny

Google cultivated links with academics and research organizations across Europe to influence the region’s tough regulatory stance toward the search giant, according to an analysis by a U.S. non-profit group published Friday.

The report argues that as part of a decade-long lobbying campaign, the American tech company earmarked millions of euros to support think tanks in Germany, the United Kingdom and Brussels that focused on hot-button topics like competition and copyright reform central to Google’s core advertising business.

The analysis was published by the Campaign for Accountability, a Washington-based organization financed by one of Google’s harshest critics.

Google’s financial and policy links with groups like the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels and the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin highlight the company’s increasingly sophisticated lobbying tactics to woo EU policymakers, who hold great sway over its corporate interests on the Continent and beyond.

Google’s ties to European research groups and academics have not helped it steer clear of regulatory scrutiny.

The disclosures by the Campaign for Accountability, which published a similar report last year outlining Google’s links with U.S. academics, also shed light on the tug-of-war between the search giant and its tech rivals. The Washington-based group is partly funded by Oracle, a long-time staunch Google critic, which also holds legal control over FairSearch, another anti-Google group at the center of Europe’s antitrust charges against the company.

“Google’s strategy is to put money into a few institutions,” said Daniel Stevens, executive director at the Campaign for Accountability, who declined to comment on the group’s ties to Oracle. “If they can muddy the waters by pointing to academic papers, it helps their cause.”

Google refuted claims it had bought influence among EU policymakers, adding that its financial support for research organizations is open to public scrutiny and did not affect those groups’ focus on digital topics. It also questioned the motives of Campaign for Accountability, which did not disclose its own source of funding.

“We’re happy to support academic researchers in Europe,” said Al Verney, a Google spokesman. “Unlike our competitors who fund the Campaign for Accountability, we expect and require our grantees to disclose their funding.”

Google’s ties to European research groups and academics have not helped it steer clear of regulatory scrutiny. Officials in Brussels, Paris and Berlin have filed antitrust charges, issued privacy fines and tried other ways to reduce the search giant’s perceived dominance of the digital world. That includes a €2.4 billion antitrust fine last year from Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition chief, for Google unfairly favoring some of its search services over those of rivals. The company is appealing that decision.

Google’s academic ties

The tech company has provided roughly €9 million to the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, a Berlin-based research organization whose academics wrote reports and papers linked to digital issues tied to Google’s underlying business, according to the institute’s own public filings. That figure represented roughly three quarters of the organization’s yearly funding at a time when German politicians, including Angela Merkel, the country’s chancellor, raised questions about Google’s dominance over many parts of the online world.

Wolfgang Schulz, director of the Humboldt Institute, acknowledged that Google’s funding placed greater responsibility on the organization to be impartial, but said the company had no say over research. He added that the organization’s contract with Google meant it only automatically received half of the annual €1.5 million budget from the search giant. The other half was dependent on the Humboldt Institute finding matching funding, on a euro-per-euro basis, from other corporate or government groups.

“We are extremely transparent,” Schulz said. “When you accept corporate money, you are under special observation.”

In London, Google also provided funding for the Research Alliance for a Digital Europe, or READIE, a think tank operated by Nesta, an independent foundation with ties to the British government, according to the Campaign for Accountability’s report.

READIE published dozens of studies on digital topics, some — but not all — favorable to Google’s lobbying positions, while its events provided the search giant’s executives an opportunity to reach EU decision-makers, according to the Washington-based organization. That included privileged access to some of Europe’s most senior policymakers, including a 2017 presentation on digital policy by READIE’s founder Valerie Mocker, which was attended by Merkel.

Mocker said the organization’s costs were split equally between Nesta and Google, and that it was always transparent about which groups and organizations were involved in its research.

“Nesta independently runs READIE as a platform to share policies; connect Europe’s policymakers with businesses and entrepreneurs,” she wrote in an email.

Building links in Brussels

The Campaign for Accountability also highlights Google’s membership of the Centre for European Policy Studies, or CEPS, a leading Brussels-based think tank chaired by Joaquín Almunia, the former competition commissioner who tried unsuccessfully to settle an EU antitrust probe with Google. The organization counts among its researchers a former Google employee and Andrea Renda, a professor occupying a Google-sponsored chair at the College of Europe, a post-graduate institute.

The Campaign for Accountability claims CEPS researchers’ stance on digital issues was influenced after Google began donating to the think tank and hosting its conferences, which promoted the company’s positions to senior EU policymakers. The group said the think tank wrote several policy papers critical of the Commission’s antitrust investigation into Google, though this work was not fully against Brussels’ stance, according to a review of CEPS’ documents.

“It is part of the larger picture where larger internet companies are dominating this conversation” — Daniel Freund, head of advocacy EU integrity at Transparency International

The think tank said that Google paid an annual corporate membership of €12,000, or less than 1 percent of its total membership income, and that the relationship did not give the company a say over its research topics.

“CEPS remains committed to its founding values of transparency and independence, meticulously upheld by our researchers and members of management,” the organization said in a statement.

Renda, the senior research fellow at CEPS, said that his critical stance toward the Commission’s antitrust investigation into Google was similar to his position against Brussels’ previous probe into Microsoft abuses more than a decade ago.

Lobbying experts said Google’s ability to influence academics or think tanks depends on its financial deals with them, but that the amount of overall tech funding going into research risked distorting the debate around issues key to corporate interests.

“Larger internet companies are dominating this conversation,” said Daniel Freund, head of advocacy EU integrity at Transparency International, whose corporate sponsors include Statoil and Microsoft. “You don’t have to script every message, but you fund the conversation taking place.”

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