Google spends millions on academic research to influence opinion, says watchdog

Google has spent millions funding academic research in the US and Europe to try to influence public opinion and policymakers, a watchdog has claimed.

Over the last decade, Google has funded research papers that appear to support the technology company’s business interests and defend against regulatory challenges such as antitrust and anti-piracy, the US-based Campaign for Accountability (CfA) said in a report.

“Google uses its immense wealth and power to attempt to influence policymakers at every level,” said Daniel Stevens, CfA executive director. “At a minimum, regulators should be aware that the allegedly independent legal and academic work on which they rely has been brought to them by Google.”

In its Google Academics Inc report, the CfA identified 329 research papers published between 2005 and 2017 on public policy that the company had funded. Such studies have been authored by academics and economists from some of the world’s leading institutions including Oxford, Edinburgh, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and the Berlin School of Economics.

Academics were directly funded by Google in more than half of the cases and in the rest of the cases funded indirectly by groups or institutions supported by Google, the CfA said. Authors, who were paid between $5,000 and $400,000 (£3,900-£310,000) by Google, did not disclose the source of their funding in 66% of all cases, and in 26% of those cases directly funded by Google, according to the report.

The CfA is calling for Google-funded academics to disclose the source of their funding to ensure their work can be evaluated in context.

Google described the report as “highly misleading” as it included any work supported by any organisation to which it has ever donated money.

“Our support for the principles underlying an open internet is shared by many academics and institutions who have a long history of undertaking research on these topics – across important areas like copyright, patents, and free expression,” said director of public policy Leslie Miller in a blog post. “We provide support to help them undertake further research, and to raise awareness of their ideas.”

Miller said the company expected academics to disclose its funding and maintain their independence. Some of the academics listed in the report had criticised Google’s policy positions on antitrust, privacy and net neutrality.

Miller added that it was ironic that the CfA talked about accountability and transparency when it would not reveal its own financial backers, one of which is Oracle, a company “running a well-documented lobbying campaign against us”, funding hundreds of pieces of research and events.

“Whenever Google’s bad behaviour is exposed, it invariably points the finger at someone else,” said Stevens. “Instead of deflecting blame, Google should address its record of academic astroturfing, which puts it in the same league as big oil and big tobacco.”


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