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How Industry Effects Change Silently and Cozily: The Google Case

At the recent conference PrivacyCon held by the US Federal Trade Commission, 13 out of 19 papers and 23 out of 41 speakers had financial ties to Google. Only two papers included disclosure of an ongoing or past financial connection to Google, writes Sam Biddle from the Intercept. He traces back funding from the tech and data giant Google (Alphabet) at the privacy conference with the stated aim to inform policymaking with research (“Tech Money Lurks Behind Government Privacy Conference”):

“….Google’s entanglements at PrivacyCon were not just extensive, they were also invisible. The internet powerhouse is keenly interested in influencing a lot of government activity, including antitrust regulation, telecommunications policy, copyright enforcement, online security, and trade pacts, and to advance that goal, has thrown around a lot of money in the nation’s capital. Ties to academia let Google attempt to sway power less directly, by giving moneyto university and graduate researchers whose work remains largely within academic circles — until it gains the audience of federal policymakers, as at PrivacyCon.”.

The bonds between the tech industry, public policymaking, privacy advocacy and research is in the spotlight these years. In particular Google (Alphabet) has been revealed to have ties and tentacles reaching far into the heart of political processes that effect its business. Either by “cozy” relationsships with policymakers, funding of experts and institutions or frequent interchange of staff between the policy sphere and the company. In 2015 the Guardian for example revealed that Google enlisted American politicians whose election campaigns it had funded to pressure the European Union in a crafted campaign to drop a 6bn euro antitrust case that threatened its business in Europe.

Google generally has been shown to have a “cozy” relationship with regulators in many fields that effects its business. A trove of emails between the company’s executives and federal officials obtained in an open records request by the nonprofit government watchdog group Campaign for Accountability and provided to the Atlantic last week fx show a tight bond between Silicon Valley and Washington. Thus, the Atlantic reports on Google’s ‘Cozy’ Relationship With Driverless-Car Regulators:

“More than 1,000 pages of emails between top executives at Google and senior officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy reveal a tight relationship between the federal government and Google going back to at least 2011, with regular in-person meetings, repeated vehicle demonstrations, ongoing policy discussions, and several one-on-one emails between top leaders in government and in Silicon Valley”

But Sam Biddle from the intercept is not only worried about lobbyism. In general he describes the influence on academia/the production of knowledge of industry funding. He gives examples of research presented at the Federal Trade Commission event supporting Google positions fx regarding the need for industry self-regulation and concludes:

“The problem with Google’s hidden links to the event is not that they should place researchers under automatic suspicion, but rather that the motives of corporate academic benefactors ought to always be suspect. Without prominent disclosure of corporate money in academia, it becomes hard for the consumers of research to raise important questions about its origins and framing”.

The privacy campaigner Aral Balkan who last year refused to participate in the annual European privacy and data protection conference CPDP due to its funding by among others Facebook, Palantir, Microsoft and Google views the industry’s impact in the context of privacy activism and advocacy similarly. He calls it “privacy white washing” and says in an open letter to the organizers: “Even if we can believe that it has absolutely no impact on programming in anyway (which is rarely the case, as sponsors are given sessions), it alters how the event is framed. By allowing Palantir to sponsor a privacy event, you are legitimising them on the topic of privacy. How bad can they be if a privacy event is all right with them being sponsors?”

See also The Google Transparancy Project – a research initiative of the Campaign for Accountability that uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose how decisions made behind the doors of corporate boardrooms and government offices impact Americans’ lives.