Luther Lowe has waged what he sees as a David-versus-Goliath fight against Google for six years now, accusing the tech giant of abusing its monopoly on internet searches to overpower rivals like Yelp Inc., where he heads up public policy and government affairs.
Yet Google’s latest attempt to silence critics of its market dominance has left him spooked.
This week, the New America Foundation, a prominent Google-funded think tank in Washington, terminated its Open Markets advocacy program, which housed some of the best-known and fiercest critics of corporate monopolies, particularly in the technology industry. The move came two months after Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets program, drew Google’s ire with a press release that praised European Union regulators’ decision to fine the company $2.7 billion for violating antitrust rules, The New York Times reported.
“It sends a message to every group that they give money to, and frankly every startup that may be getting squeezed by Google, that they are willing to retaliate,” Lowe told HuffPost on Thursday. “That’s what’s really scary about it.”
New America ― which until 2016 was chaired by Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. ― is one of 170 third-party organizations that Google finances as part of its efforts to influence D.C. policy. The groups range from the liberal Center for American Progress and Brookings Institution to the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Heritage Foundation. The company bankrolls academics, too, funding 329 research papers on public policy published between 2005 and 2017, according to a July report by Campaign for Accountability.
“We don’t agree with every group 100% of the time, and while we sometimes respectfully disagree, we respect each group’s independence, personnel decisions, and policy perspectives,” Google spokeswoman Riva Sciuto told HuffPost on Friday.
The New America drama comes just as fury over antitrust enforcement is growing. Trustbusting was once a common aspect of populist politics, particularly for Democrats, who established limits on corporate power as part of the New Deal-era reforms passed by President Franklin Roosevelt. But by the 1970s, the party began to abandon antitrust issues, leaving regulation to technocrats and industry-friendly experts. Coupled with the type of regulation pursued by historically business-friendly Republicans, this allowed new generations of corporations to grow into giants.
Google, which is expected to command 41 percent of all digital ad revenues by the end of 2017, has long bristled at the idea that it constitutes a monopoly. The company forced Forbes magazine to remove a critical story on the subject six years ago, according to a damning account published Thursday by the author on Gizmodo.
“By instigating this New America purge, they’re sending a message to all these other organizations that ‘you cross us at your peril,’” Lowe said.
It’s also a shot across the bow at the companies and organizations that have already taken a stand against Google’s might.
HuffPost contacted the 29 companies and organizations that complained to EU regulators that Google gave its own services an unfair advantage in search engine results, causing harm to their businesses. Of the nine groups that responded, only four agreed to comment on the record about the New America firings.
Berlin-based Visual Meta, an e-commerce site, admitted that having a deep-pocketed owner, German publishing behemoth Axel Springer, gave it the freedom to criticize Google in a way that many of its competitors may be “too scared” to do, for fear that Google would “do them harm.”
“It’s a sign of a threat to everyone who doesn’t share the public opinion of Google, or who says something against Google’s measures they take and policies,” Robert Maier, founder and managing director of Visual Meta, told HuffPost. “It shows basically how influential money is.”
Michel Weber, whose former Hannover-based company Hotmaps competed with Google Maps, said Google “would have been smarter to ignore this group around Barry Lynn, rather than pressure it or even have the people fired.” He noted that Lynn and his team, which included former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout and writer Matthew Stoller, plan to continue their work as an independent entity.
“These people stood up straight and did not shut up, even when their jobs were in danger,” Weber, who now serves as chairman of the London-based Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace and co-president of the Open Internet Project, told HuffPost. “This incident really boiled hot and is getting a lot of attention.”
“Will this be the final tipping point?” he added. “We’ll see when we look back in a few years.”
Shivaun Raff, chief executive of the British price comparison site Foundem, said she “suspects the recent revelations are just the tip of the iceberg.”
“In a bricks and mortar world, Google’s anti-competitive practices would have been obvious to all, but in the opaque world of internet search Google’s ability to get away with these practices has long depended on its ability to confuse and obfuscate,” she told HuffPost in an email. “In our experience, Google’s extensive network of ‘academic’ influencers has played an increasingly pivotal role in this strategy.”
The European Consumer Organisation, or BEUC, said it’s “crucial that the independence of academics feeding into the important debate of antitrust enforcement is preserved.”
“We are concerned that major tech firms that are being scrutinized by antitrust bodies use academic capture to put pressure on regulators,” Monique Goyens, director general of the Brussels-based consumer watchdog, told HuffPost. “Academic sponsorships or financing of think tanks must happen transparently and no company should use its financial clout to unduly influence the public debate.”
Microsoft and Expedia both said they had “nothing to share” about the firings. (Microsoft withdrew its complaint last year, and is no longer a signatory to the EU case.) Munich-based HolidayCheck Solutions, a travel booking service, said its executives “were unfortunately not available for a statement.” A spokesman for TripAdvisor said that “a bunch of folks are out for the extended holiday weekend, so we’re going to need to pass on commenting on this matter.”
Other companies, including News Corp, Getty Images and T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom, did not respond.
This was updated to include comment from Foundem.