Critics of Google are speaking up after ousting of US think tank head

1 Sep 2017

Google’s Mountain View offices. Image: achinthamb/Shutterstock

Google has come under fire recently for allegedly quashing dissenting voices.

The New America Foundation is an influential Washington-based think tank that The New York Times described as “an elite voice in policy debates on the American left”.

A crucial point about this foundation is that Google has poured $21m into it since its beginning in 1999.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the search giant is in the midst of a backlash following the firing of Barry Lynn in June. Lynn had been running an initiative as part of New America Foundation, called Open Markets, and had written a statement criticising Google following the record fine issued to the company by the European Commission for “abusing dominance as a search engine”.

Lynn was happy with the outcome, writing: “US enforcers should apply the traditional American approach to network monopoly, which is to cleanly separate ownership of the network from ownership of the products and services sold on that network, as they did in the original Microsoft case of the late 1990s.”

‘People are so afraid of Google now’

There has been a notable increase in public criticism of the company and the general market dominance of a select few tech and telecoms firms, including Facebook and Apple. Following Lynn’s statement, he was dismissed from his role by New America Foundation president Anne-Marie Slaughter, who accused him of “imperilling the institution as a whole”.

Lynn told the The New York Times: “Google is very aggressive in throwing its money around Washington and Brussels, and then pulling the strings.

“People are so afraid of Google now.”

Slaughter then tweeted that the story from the paper was false, but New America Foundation’s statement doesn’t dispute anything in the original report and interview with Lynn, according to The Intercept.

Kashmir Hill and Google Plus

In an article on Gizmodo, reporter Kashmir Hill wrote of her experience with the company and the pressure she felt to pull a piece about Google Plus while working for Forbes in 2011.

Google sales staff had allegedly encouraged Forbes staff to add Google Plus social buttons to articles on the site, saying that it would be a factor in search results. This concerned Hill, so she wrote a critical article.

Hill wrote: “With that, I published a story headlined Stick Google Plus Buttons On Your Pages, Or Your Search Traffic Suffers.”

Although Hill wanted the piece to remain online, she eventually bowed to pressure from higher-ups in Forbes.

Lynn and the rest of his group are now planning to establish a new non-profit and have launched a website called Citizens Against Monopoly.

A response from Google

After Hill’s article was published, Rob Shilkin, vice-president of global communications, sent an email explaining the company’s version of events. He said Hill should have been informed by Forbes that the meeting she attended about Google Plus was held under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

“From our perspective, this was a disagreement over whether a meeting was held under NDA. As you know, you attended a Forbes business meeting with the Google sales team, which was presenting on the (then) new [Plus One] button.

“It didn’t strike our sales team as unusual that someone from Forbes’ editorial was in the meeting because they’d often attend these types of meetings – editorial is often involved in a publication’s social strategy.

“However, like most of our client meetings that discuss new features, it was held under an NDA (it sounds like Forbes didn’t inform you of this before you attended and had we known you were going to report on the meeting, we would have raised that concern).”

Updated, 9.20am, 7 September 2017: This article was updated to include comments from Rob Shilkin.

Google’s Mountain View offices. Image: achinthamb/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects