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Google Has Become a Major Threat to Democracy in America

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Michael Krieger
Liberty Blitzkrieg
August 31, 2017

About 10 years ago, Tim Wu, the Columbia Law professor who coined the term network neutrality, made this prescient comment: “To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist, you have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king.”

Wu was right. And now, Google has established a pattern of lobbying and threatening to acquire power. It has reached a dangerous point common to many monarchs: The moment where it no longer wants to allow dissent.

When Google was founded in 1998, it famously committed itself to the motto: “Don’t be evil.” It appears that Google may have lost sight of what being evil means, in the way that most monarchs do: Once you reach a pinnacle of power, you start to believe that any threats to your authority are themselves villainous and that you are entitled to shut down dissent. As Lord Acton famously said, “Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality.” Those with too much power cannot help but be evil. Google, the company dedicated to free expression, has chosen to silence opposition, apparently without any sense of irony.

In recent years, Google has become greedy about owning not just search capacities, video and maps, but also the shape of public discourse. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Google has recruited and cultivated law professors who support its views. And as the New York Times recently reported, it has become invested in building curriculum for our public schools, and has created political strategy to get schools to adopt its products.

It is time to call out Google for what it is: a monopolist in search, video, maps and browser, and a thin-skinned tyrant when it comes to ideas.

Google is forming into a government of itself, and it seems incapable of even seeing its own overreach. We, as citizens, must respond in two ways. First, support the brave researchers and journalists who stand up to overreaching power; and second, support traditional antimonopoly laws that will allow us to have great, innovative companies — but not allow them to govern us.

– From Zephyr Teachout’s powerful arcticle: Google Is Coming After Critics in Academia and Journalism. It’s Time to Stop Them.

The mask has finally come off Google’s face, and what lurks underneath looks pretty evil.

2017 has represented a coming out party of sorts for Google and the control-freaks who run it. The company’s response to the James Damore controversy made it crystal clear that executives at Google are far more interested in shoving their particular worldview down the throats of the public, versus encouraging vibrant and lively debate. This is not a good look for the dominant search engine.

The creeping evilness of Google has been obvious for quite some time, but this troubling reality has only recently started getting the attention it deserves. The worst authoritarian impulses exhibited at the company appear to emanate from Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, whose actions consistently seem to come from a very dark and unconscious place.

Today’s piece focuses on the breaking news that an important initiative known as Open Markets, housed within the think tank New America Foundation, has been booted from the think tank after major donor Google complained about its anti-monopoly stance. Open Markets was led by a man named Barry Lynn, who all of you should become familiar with.

The Huffington Post profiled him last year. Here’s some of what we learned:

There’s a solid economic rationale behind Washington’s new big thing. Monopolies and oligopolies are distorting the markets for everything from pet food to cable service. There’s a reason why cable companies have such persistently lousy customer-service ratings. They know you have few (if any) alternatives. Today, two-thirds of the 900 industries tracked by The Economist feature heavier concentration at the top than they did in 1997. The global economy is in the middle of a merger wave big enough to make 2015 the biggest year in history for corporate consolidation

Most political junkies have never heard of the man chiefly responsible for the current Beltway antitrust revival: Barry C. Lynn. A former business journalist, Lynn has spent more than a decade carving out his own fiefdom at a calm, centrist Washington think tank called the New America Foundation. In the process, he has changed the way D.C. elites think about corporate power.

“Barry is the hub,” says Zephyr Teachout, a fiery progressive who recently clinched the Democratic nomination for a competitive House seat in New York. “He is at the center of a growing new ― I hesitate to call it a movement ― but a group of people who recognize that we have a problem with monopolies not only in our economy, but in our democracy.”

Many Southerners who relocate to the nation’s capital try to temper their accents for the elite crowd that dominates the District’s social scene. Lynn, a South Florida native, never shed his drawl. He pronounces “sonofabitch” as a single word, which he uses to describe both corrupt politicians and big corporations. He is a blunt man in a town that rewards caginess and flexibility. But like King, Lynn’s critique of monopolies does not reflect a disdain for business itself.

Lynn left Global Business for The New America Foundation in 2001 and began work on his first book, End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation, which argues that globalization and merger mania had injected a new fragility into international politics. Disruptive events ― earthquakes, coups, famines, or at worst, war ― could now wreak havoc on U.S. products that had once been safely manufactured domestically. Production of anything from light bulbs to computers all could shut down without warning.

It was a frightening vision with implications for economic policy and national security alike. It was also ideologically inconvenient for the techno-utopian zeitgeist of its day. Lynn’s book landed on shelves about the same time as Thomas Friedman’s better-known tome, The World Is Flat, which declared globalization a triumph of innovation and hard work for anyone willing to do the hard work of innovating. 

Today, Lynn’s predictions of market disruption and political unrest appear to have been ahead of their time. Early globalization champions, including Martin Wolf and Lawrence Summers, are rethinking their judgments of a decade ago. But Lynn turned several influential heads when his book was published. Thomas Frank, bestselling author of What’s The Matter With Kansas?, became a Lynn enthusiast. So did food writer Michael Pollan. 

“He was writing about an issue that nobody was paying attention to, and he was doing it with a very strong sense of history,” Pollan says. “Barry understood antitrust going back to the trust-busters a century ago, and how our understanding of the issue shrank during the Reagan administration … The food movement is not very sophisticated on those issues.”

Lynn’s history nerd-dom is eccentric in a town that hyperventilates over every hour of the cable news cycle. Ask about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, and Lynn will oblige you a polite sentence or two. Ask him about former Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis or William Howard Taft, and you’ll need to reschedule your dinner plans.

“He once asked me to read about Roman law for a piece on common carriage,” says Lina Khan, referencing a plank of net neutrality policy not typically associated with the Code of Justinian. 

After he published his second book in 2010, Lynn began bringing on his own staff within New America. Khan was one of his first hires. Teachout, a Fordham University Law School professor, was another. Teachout eventually ran for office and published a book of her own on the history of corruption in America. Another of Lynn’s associates, Christopher Leonard, published a book on meat industry monopolies around the same time. These works shared a common theme: Monopolistic businesses create social problems beyond consumer price-gouging, from buying off politicians to degrading the quality of our food.

Analyzing the political power of companies with overwhelming market positions used to be a normal part of antitrust thinking. But over the decades, a narrower conception focused on consumer prices has taken hold in Washington. Even if anti-competitive behavior can be proved, according to this thinking, it’s not a problem unless it raises prices for consumers. Under this view, it’s not necessarily an antitrust problem, if, say, Amazon used its market position to force publishers into charging lower prices for books. If the result is lower prices, everything is fine. It would only become a problem if Amazon used its market power to raise prices.

That’s not how Lynn sees it. When the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of Authors’ Representatives and Authors United went after Amazon in 2015 for requiring publishers to accept lower e-book prices, Lynn penned a 24-page position paper to the Department of Justice on their behalf. It wasn’t just a question of immediate consumer impact. Amazon’s market position was so dominant, he argued, that the company could restrict or cut off access to books from publishers it wanted to punish for rejecting its pricing requirements. It could “exercise control over the marketplace of ideas in ways that threaten not merely open markets but free speech.”

Monopolies, according to Lynn, are fundamentally political enterprises — not just players in a market.

As the Amazon conflict demonstrates, some of Lynn’s chief targets are tech giants. That makes him an odd fit for New America, which was founded in 1999 as Silicon Valley’s think tank in search of a “radical center,” as The New York Times put it. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is still on New America’s board of directors, yet Lynn consistently puts the company under the microscope. 

When Warren blasted tech monopolies this summer, she was speaking at a conference that Lynn had organized. When Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked about “platform” monopolies at a Senate hearing in March, he was echoing Lynn’s objections to digital kingpins, including Amazon, Apple and Google. 

But Lynn’s apostasy gets results. The Obama administration conferred with him on an anti-monopoly executive order this spring, and he helped work antitrust language into the 2016 Democratic Party platform. He can’t claim the same kind of direct credit for the Republican Party’s partial conversion to the antitrust cause. But his work is changing the way Washington thinks about corporate power, and that shift is having bipartisan repercussions.

Barry Lynn and his Open Markets initiative have been a thorn in the side of tech-monopoly plutocrats for a while, and Google apparently decided that it finally had enough.

As the The New York Times noted in a blockbuster article published earlier today:

WASHINGTON — In the hours after European antitrust regulators levied a record $2.7 billion fine against Google in late June, an influential Washington think tank learned what can happen when a tech giant that shapes public policy debates with its enormous wealth is criticized.

The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left.

But not long after one of New America’s scholars posted a statementon the think tank’s website praising the European Union’s penalty against Google, Mr. Schmidt, who had been chairman of New America until 2016, communicated his displeasure with the statement to the group’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, according to the scholar.

The statement disappeared from New America’s website, only to be reposted without explanation a few hours later. But word of Mr. Schmidt’s displeasure rippled through New America, which employs more than 200 people, including dozens of researchers, writers and scholars, most of whom work in sleek Washington offices where the main conference room is called the “Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab.” The episode left some people concerned that Google intended to discontinue funding, while others worried whether the think tank could truly be independent if it had to worry about offending its donors. 

Those worries seemed to be substantiated a couple of days later, when Ms. Slaughter summoned the scholar who wrote the critical statement, Barry Lynn, to her office. He ran a New America initiative called Open Markets that has led a growing chorus of liberal criticism of the market dominance of telecom and tech giants, including Google, which is now part of a larger corporate entity known as Alphabet, for which Mr. Schmidt serves as executive chairman. 

Ms. Slaughter told Mr. Lynn that “the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways,” according to an email from Ms. Slaughter to Mr. Lynn. The email suggested that the entire Open Markets team — nearly 10 full-time employees and unpaid fellows — would be exiled from New America.

While she asserted in the email, which was reviewed by The New York Times, that the decision was “in no way based on the content of your work,” Ms. Slaughter accused Mr. Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole.”

Mr. Lynn, in an interview, charged that Ms. Slaughter caved to pressure from Mr. Schmidt and Google, and, in so doing, set the desires of a donor over the think tank’s intellectual integrity.

“Google is very aggressive in throwing its money around Washington and Brussels, and then pulling the strings,” Mr. Lynn said. “People are so afraid of Google now.”

It is difficult to overstate Mr. Lynn’s influence in raising concerns about the market dominance of Google, as well as of other tech companies such as Amazon and Facebook. His Open Markets initiative organized a 2016 conference at which a range of influential figures — including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — warned of damaging effects from market consolidation in tech.

In the run-up to that conference, Ms. Slaughter and New America’s lead fund-raiser in emails to Mr. Lynn indicated that Google was concerned that its positions were not going to be represented, and that it was not given advanced notice of the event.

“We are in the process of trying to expand our relationship with Google on some absolutely key points,” Ms. Slaughter wrote in an email to Mr. Lynn, urging him to “just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.”

After initially eschewing Washington public policy debates, which were seen in Silicon Valley as pay-to-play politics, Google has developed an influence operation that is arguably more muscular and sophisticated than that of any other American company. It spent $9.5 million on lobbying through the first half of this year — more than almost any other company. It helped organize conferences at which key regulators overseeing investigations into the company were presented with pro-Google arguments, sometimes without disclosure of Google’s role.

Among the most effective — if little examined — tools in Google’s public policy toolbox has been its funding of nonprofit groups from across the political spectrum. This year, it has donated to 170 such groups, according to Google’s voluntary disclosures on Google’s website. While Google does not indicate how much cash was donated, the number of beneficiaries has grown exponentially since it started disclosing its donations in 2010, when it gave to 45 groups.

Some tech lobbyists, think tank officials and scholars argue that the efforts help explain why Google has mostly avoided damaging regulatory and enforcement decisions in the United States of the sort levied by the European Union in late June.

Google’s willingness to spread cash around the think tanks and advocacy groups focused on internet and telecommunications policy has effectively muted, if not silenced, criticism of the company over the past several years, said Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. His group, which does not accept any corporate funding, has played a leading role in calling out Google and other tech companies for alleged privacy violations. But Mr. Rotenberg said it is become increasingly difficult to find partners in that effort as more groups have accepted Google funding. 

“There are simply fewer groups that are available to speak up about Google’s activities that threaten online privacy,” Mr. Rotenberg said. “The groups that should be speaking up aren’t.”

As a result of its actions in recent years, I believe Google represents a clear threat to democracy and freedom of expression in America. The good news is that Barry Lynn and his team at Open Markets will continue their work independently at a new group called Citizens Against Monopoly.

You can sign a letter of support for this new initiative and contribute to it financially (I have done both), by clicking the image below.

Let’s make sure this story results in the the ultimate Streisand effect, thus bringing the crucial issue of anti-trust to the forefront of the American political conversation where it belongs.

Monopoly capitalism is not a “left” or “right” issue, it’s an issue nearly everyone can stand united on irrespective of where you lie on the political spectrum. Concentration is too high in too many industries, and this reality is starting to have negative repercussions on our basic freedoms. It’s long past time that we tackle this issue with the seriousness it deserves and start to push back aggressively as a people.

This article was posted: Thursday, August 31, 2017 at 6:36 am





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