While American news junkies are focusing on big stories like Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, Washington DC is agog with an unusually ham-fisted show of Google’s power. Today, the New York Times reported that Anne-Marie Slaughter, who runs the New America Foundation, fired all ten members of its Open Markets initiative headed by Barry Lynn. Our sometimes guest blogger, former Congressional staffer Matt Stoller, was part of this effort.
Their sin? Not only praising the $2.7 billion EU fine against Google for anti-trust abuses related to shopping searches, a ruling whose logic threatens the rest of Google’s businesses, but also in a press release, calling for US anti-trust officials “to build upon this important precedent, both in respect to Google and to other dominant platform monopolists including Amazon.” The New York Times reported on the denouement Wednesday morning:
This story is troubling. https://t.co/UmRVi2UnSI
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 30, 2017
Think tanks play a critical role in shaping policy, but their credibility is jeopardized when decisions are based on funder preferences.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) August 30, 2017
And it isn’t just Warren that took notice of this New York Times story. The Washington Post, The Intercept, Vox, the National Review, The Week, Paste, and The Verge all quickly piled on, effectively on the side of Open Markets against Google.
The story has also already gotten outside the political hothouse, as witness this tweet by influential business reporter Bethany McLean, on yet another account, this one from the New York Post:
Is there a “nice” way to speak truth to power? https://t.co/Pd2p5mXkwn “Slaughter says she ousted Lynn & Co. for failures in ‘collegiality.’
— Bethany McLean (@bethanymac12) August 31, 2017
The reason this incident has gripped the attention of tout Washington is that the whole point of think tanks is to launder the money of corporations and powerful interests and lend a veneer of legitimacy to their PR and lobbying campaigns. That’s normally done by forming a group with an anodyne name, like Americans for Better Locker Rooms, to hide its real aims, which in this case might be to explain why pricey high tech IoT enabled lockers with spycams were absolutely essential for public schools.
By contrast, Google and New America are joined at the hip. CEO Eric Schmidt was the chairman of New America until 2016. The Times reports that Google, Schmidt personally, and his family foundation together have given more than $21 million since 1999. The main conference room at New America is even called the “Eric Schmidt Ideas Lab”.
Moreover, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Google/Schmidt also have an extremely tight relationship. For instance, a source who is not party to this fight said that Google and the State Department were very close under Hillary. When she was at State, Slaughter worked with Google and Facebook to develop censorship tools that would then be promoted to foreign governments, with the intent of both increasing Google and Facebook’s market share in those countries and, ahem, advancing America’s interests.
So given that Google and Schmidt are incestuously close to New America, it is even more important that for typical think tanks for New America not to look like it is carrying water for Google. The critical point that seems to have been lost on Schmidt and Slaughter is that New America has to take some positions that Google does not like for New America to be able to maintain the pretense that New America is anything other than a Google PR shop located in the Beltway.
However, Lynn was not merely given the appearance that New America represented a wide range of views. He was getting traction, something Google found unacceptable. Again from the Times:
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…
Last month, Democratic congressional leaders rolled out a policy platform that included a pledge to dismantle monopolies, including in cable and internet service, which some read as a challenge to Google in particular. That sentiment — which appears to have some support from populist elements of President Trump’s base — diverges sharply from the approach that had been taken by most Democrats until recently.
Not only did Slaughter’s inept dismissal of the Open Markets diminish the utility New America had for Google, but Slaughter greatly compounded the damage by escalating the fight via trying to discredit the New York Times’ reporting. Incredibly, New America released the full text of e-mails meant to exculpate Slaughter. Instead, they made it crystal clear that she was acting as Schmidt’s henchman:
This was from the beginning of the second e-mail New America published:
Slaughter stated flat out that a single press release saying that US anti-trust authorities should go after Google and other platform monopolists was “imperiling the institution as a whole”. There is no way to read this other than Schmidt threatened to yank his and Google’s funding and potentially said he’d urge other Silicon Valley backers to do the same.
Slaughter has a long history of applying porcine maquillage on behalf of the powerful. She’s managed to get away with it despite how flat out embarrassing some of her efforts have been. But in the past, she’s also been able to use the imprimatur of Big Brand organizations to give a sheen of legitimacy to her intellectual prostitution. For instance, in 2003, in a New York Times op-ed, she tried defending the US intervention in Iraq. In this tortured piece, she argued for extra-legal actions: “Practices have to evolve without formal amendment.” And she concluded with the remarkable contention that if the US found anything bad enough in Iraq, meaning those fictive WMD, then this would all be made legal retroactively. Mind you, Americans regularly forget that UN inspector Hans Blix was already in Iraq going through weapons sites in order of priority, and at the time of this debate, he’d already gone through the top 75% of the sites, meaning that if Saddam had anything, at that point it would have to be so little that he could be moving it around on trucks.
This 2014 Truthout article gives a more detailed recap of Slaughter’s long history of working for bad causes and then trying to defend her actions.
The good news is that Schmidt’s and Slaughter’s backfire won’t just dent her but has put a long-overdue spotlight on how much power Google and tech titans wield in the Beltway and how too few people have been willing to stand up to them. The fact that the New York Times ran a detailed, well-reported piece against Google when the editorial policies of its business section have moved strongly towards being even more pro-corporate, suggests that the Times and other media outlets have finally woken up to the threat that Google’s power over the Internet represents to them. The Times might have thought the way that Google was stomping on small blogs and politically-oriented YouTube channels was irrelevant to them. But the Google initiative to punish even major publishers like the Los Angeles Times for what Google deems to be too much ad clutter means Google has now taken the position that it can be the arbiter of what ads websites can run, which is tantamount to saying it can choke down their revenues. For anyone paying attention, this is a death threat.
Moreover, this thuggish move will not stand Google in good stead in the eyes of the EU competition commissioner.
The Open Markets team has reconstitued as Citizens Against Monopoly, with Zephyr Teachout as its chairman. As Vox reported, it has already obtained some funding. But you can help! Please sign the petition, circulate it, and if you can, chip in. Small donor fundraising worked for Sanders. It’s time to show it can work in other ways in the fight to take power back from overbearing members of the elite.
3. Three ways to help. Open Markets set up a campaign, Citizens Against Monopoly. Use it to email Google’s CEO. https://t.co/dLqngxOFUW
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) August 30, 2017
Look at how a mere ten people, leveraging Lynn’s long-standing work on anti-trust as well as the no-nonsense ruling of the EU competition commissioner, has the supposedly all powerful Google lashing out in a self-destructive way. Perhaps these Masters of the Universe have noticed the sharp price rise of pitchfork futures.