If you'd like to know what a propaganda campaign, carried out by a powerful entity apparently lacking any semblance of disclosure and/or transparency might look like in a democracy – look no further than this spate of recent “opinion pieces” cropping up on US-based media outlets, defending none other than Google, against some deep and scathing criticism of its long-lasting business models and policies.
Luther Lowe, SVP of Public Policy at Yelp – a Google competitor who has in the past found it very difficult to compete on equal footing with the behemoth – posted a tweet on to call out Yoni Appelbaum, an editor at The Atlantic.
It's been over 24 hours and @YAppelbaum has failed to put a conflict of interest disclosure on a piece @TheAtlantic ran yesterday on behalf of a Google-funded think tank.
As we wait with bated breath for that, @TheHill just ran one with the same issues: https://t.co/COl7pEmPo1
Lowe remarked that it had been over a day at that point – but that Appelbaum was yet to “put a conflict of interest disclosure” on an article he published the day before for The Atlantic – and, allegedly, “on behalf of a Google-funded think tank.”
What Lowe was referring to is that this, and several other seemingly legitimate opinion pieces, have recently been published by representatives of organizations funded by Google itself – as per this list disclosed by the tech giant (PDF). (archived version)
The controversy's background
There's lots of agreement nowadays that Google and other global tech giants at its level have grown far too big for the good of society, economy, their competitors, and perhaps in the long run, even for their own good. Therefore – the calls to spin-off parts of Google are coming from lefties and conservatives in the US, from EU bureaucrats, and Australia's overzealous regulators alike.
Digital rights and privacy groups and advocates may not have the same priorities in mind, but they, too, wouldn't mind seeing the power of Google diminished, for obvious reasons – like the giant's tight and relentless control of not only the digital marketplace but also of free speech on its vastly influential platforms like YouTube. This even goes as far as Google being perceived as defining, or redefining, what it means to exercise free vs. hate speech – and then align its own opinion on the matter with Google's vague and overly broad terms of service.
Be that as it may – other than Silicon Valley itself, pretty much the only place where you can still come across clear and unambiguous support of Big Tech – and indeed, any strong opposition to the idea of breaking these companies up – are media outlets. Which is fine: after all, it's the job of the press to have a mind of its own, rather than merely parrot the dominant political narrative of the day.
But where it gets messy in this particular case, is when it emerged that some of these media outlets might just be parroting Google's business interests. At which point any observer is left wondering which is worse: the plague or smallpox – namely, a world ruled by a gargantuan corporation like Google, or one of the overreaching governments? We may or may not ever find out.
“Just don't break Google up!”
Meanwhile, Google's Trade Associations and Membership Organizations list includes plenty of seemingly legit media sources funded by the giant that now appear to be arguing Google's case as a force for good that should under no circumstances be broken up – while making no attempt to disclose that they, or groups that fund them, are receiving money from Google.
Thus Mario Loyola Senior, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, writes about the “problem of state-level investigation of Google” – to frame it as those pesky European antitrust agencies going after US tech giants “for years” – apparently, for no legitimate reason – only to be now joined by suspect US regulators, like the FTC.
Another piece, published by The Hill, took its readers into author Stephen Moore's first-person confidence – and the long and short of the story he had to tell them is this: Google has the best product – and that means it must be unfairly targeted by antitrust regulators. Moore is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
The Hill – an originally Democrat outfit that doesn't seem to mind giving some conservative and libertarian voices a platform – doesn't rest there, either. Jennifer Huddleston, a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, even reached for a riveting pun – “techclash.”
Let's see how well that does against Google's previous buzzword handed out to friendly journalists – who clamped down on any criticism of the company as nothing but deplorable “technophobia.”
The Mercatus Center at George Mason University, The Heritage Foundation, and Competitive Enterprise Institute all receive “substantial contributions” from Google's U.S. Government Affairs and Public Policy team according to Google.