Don’t be evil

The New York Times published some interesting news today. See if you can follow: Google provides a lot of funding ($21 million) to the New America Foundation, a well-regarded think tank that does thoughtful work. One of its projects is the Open Markets initiative, which legitimately examines the market dominance of telecom and tech giants. The Open Markets initiative published commentary supporting the EU’s $2.7 billion fine against Google for monopolistic behavior. Google chair Eric Schmidt complains to New America, so New America lets its entire Open Markets team go. (New America explains that they let the team go not because of a single commentary, but rather because of its leaders “repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.” Whatever.)

This seems pretty straightforward. If I funded an organization, I’d be miffed if that same organization were critical of me and I would probably threaten not to fund it any more. But it’s problematic for two reasons. First, the organization in question is a think tank that is supposed to be remain independent of the interests of its funders. It’s true that not all think tanks draw a sharp separation between editorial and business, the way a newspaper might. (Imagine if the Washington Post wrote a negative article about Amazon. Would Jeff Bezos give the publisher a call?) But New America’s work studying monopolies is important work for which independence is important.

The second problem is that it actually demonstrates that Google throws around its market power routinely. By making that phone call, Eric Schmidt wielded Google’s power to squelch investigations into its activities — exactly as anti-monopoly advocates might have predicted. That’s worrisome, considering that Google reportedly funds some 170 different think tanks and non-profits.

Today, I signed a petition organized by the Open Markets team, which is setting up a new independent organization, asking Google to live up to its founding code of conduct: “Don’t be evil.”

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