The influential and left-leaning New America Foundation set the sleepy world of Washington think tanks ablaze Wednesday morning with the news that it is parting ways with one of its advocacy programs — under pressure from a major sponsor, Google.
The Open Markets program at New America and its executive director, Barry Lynn, are well-known and tireless critics of Big Tech and corporate monopolies. But after they issued a statement praising EU regulators’ June decision to fine Google $2.7 billion for antitrust violations, Google was displeased enough to push back, the New York Times reports.
“The time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways,” New America president Anne-Marie Slaughter told Lynn in an email obtained by the Times, in which she went on to both accuse Lynn of “imperiling” the whole foundation and acknowledge that cutting ties with Open Markets and its 10-person staff was “in no way based on the content of your work.”
Instead, it appears that Lynn and Open Markets cut too close to New America’s lucrative relationship with Google and its executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. New America told VICE News that it has received about $20 million from Schmidt-related groups — including his family foundation, Google, the Schmidt-funded 11th Hour Project, and the Schmidt family itself — since the think tank was founded in 1999. Schmidt, who has long operated as Google’s top envoy to Washington, also served as the chairman of New America’s board until 2016.
Slaughter contested the framing of the New York Times story in a statement emailed to VICE News, calling the “claim” that Open Markets was kicked out of New America because of its EU statement “absolutely false.”
“As I reiterated to [Lynn] in June, his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality meant that we could no longer work together as part of the same institution,” Slaughter said, apparently referencing the email exchange cited by the Times. “I continued, however, to seek a cooperative solution with Barry; unfortunately, I have been unsuccessful.”
Lynn did not respond to requests for comment, however he told the New York Times that he plans to take Open Market independent and that he has funders already lined up.
Think tank funding spree
Google’s D.C. influence campaign goes way beyond New America. In fact, the tech giant’s rising dominance in digital advertising — the research firm eMarketer expects it to take in 41 percent of all U.S. digital ad revenues by the end of 2017 — roughly tracks with its ascendant political profile.
The digital ad conglomerate, by its own admission, has funded at least 170 different “third-party organizations” across the political spectrum over the past decade; groups that include both the left-leaning Center for American Progress and the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Google has also spent millions supporting academic work friendly to Google’s interests, on both the left and the right.
“Google has nonprofits on the payroll all over town. We’re the ones who weren’t on their payroll,” Open Markets program fellow Matt Stoller told VICE News. “I think this is about Google, it’s about monopoly, and it’s how monopoly power works.”
Google spokesperson Riva Sciuto said in a statement that although the company doesn’t agree “with every group 100% of the time,” Google respects “each group’s independence, personnel decisions, and policy perspectives.”
Google lobbying spending increases
Beyond funding policy wonks and academics, Google has ramped up its lobbying and political hobnobbing operation since the 2016 election.
Schmidt and the company enjoyed a close relationship with the Silicon Valley-friendly Obama administration, which gave frequent White House meetings to Google and appointed a number of former Google executives to administration jobs. But caught off-guard by the election of Donald Trump, Google has been putting serious effort into wooing Republicans.
The tech giant spent more than it ever has before on lobbying last quarter, forking over $5.4 million to registered lobbyists. And in January, Google shelled out at least $50,000 for a gala at the Smithsonian that hosted 70 mostly Republican lawmakers.
Though the Google-GOP courtship has a lot to do with making friends with the political party in firm control of all three branches of the federal government, part of it is also likely in response to changing attitudes within the Democratic Party.
When the Democratic Party unveiled their “Better Deal” platform in July, a preview of its 2018 election cycle message, there was ample language dedicated to reviving stronger antitrust policy and enforcement — a marked shift from previous years. Roosevelt Institute economist Marshall Steinbaum noted that the Better Deal “elevates antitrust policy to a stature it has not attained in many decades.”
And Democrats across the left — from progressives like freshman California Rep. Ro Khanna to centrist party stalwarts like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker — have specifically mentioned Big Tech with regards to antitrust, an unnerving shift for both Google and Schmidt.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who castigated Silicon Valley giants in a widely publicized Open Markets program event at New America in 2016, appears unnerved herself by what has unfolded with Google and New America. An aide familiar with Warren’s thinking told VICE News that the expulsion of Lynn and Open Markets “raises a lot of questions” for Warren.
Hal Singer, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy who has taken Google funding in the past, told VICE News that he feels “the natural inclination of liberal Democrats on Better Deal is to seek greater antitrust enforcement.
“But if the message that Google is sending is that funding is going to be pulled for what a liberal ought to believe, that has a chilling effect on speech.”