For almost 20 years now, Google's stated mission has been to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It does so not just through its flagship search product but through a constellation of other tools like Google Scholar, which indexes academic papers, books, and abstracts.
But it turns out Google hasn't limited itself to the organizing and the making accessible. Quietly, it has also been adding to the world's store of information by commissioning academic research that supports its lobbying aims. Or maybe that should be "disinformation"?
Among the countless publications accessible through Google Scholar are about 100 written with direct funding from Google and published between 2009 and now, according to the non-profit Campaign for Accountability's Google Transparency Project.
"Another 100 or so research papers were written by authors with financing by think tanks or university research centers funded by Google and other tech firms," notes the Wall Street Journal in a concurrent story about the report.
Papers underwritten by Google have supported its interpretation of copyright and patent law, downplayed privacy concerns around data collection, and argued that its business practices aren't anti-competitive. The company's lobbyists have cited those research findings in communications with lawmakers and arranged speaking opportunities for some of the authors.
Around the internet, the revelations have been received as something of a scandal. Wired accused Google of "subverting academic freedom with bribes." The Week says Google "covertly funded research that defends the company's practices."
A close look reveals much of that to be nonsense. There was little "covert" about Google's efforts. According to the Wall Street Journal, in a funding letter sent to many recipients, the company specifically noted it would "appreciate receiving attribution or acknowledgment of our award in applicable university publications." Most of the authors who received grants directly from Google complied. Those who didn't apparently either forgot or didn't want it known they were taking corporate cash, lest their reputations suffer. Nor were they breaking any rules or even norms by doing so, says WSJ: "There are no professional standards on such disclosures in the research papers, which are mostly published in law journals at the universities."
Why would anyone expect Google to care more about the sanctity of academic independence than academics and their institutions do? There's nothing novel about a big company supporting and even commissioning academic work it finds strategically useful. Pharma, energy, and tobacco companies have been doing it for decades.
There, perhaps, lies the explanation for the critical response. As a matter of market capitalization, Google may be bigger than any drug or oil company. But in the public mind, the image of Google as a scrappy startup with the unofficial motto "Don't be evil" persists. And that, somehow, Google is different.
That notion, more than any essay by a legal professor who cashed a $30,000 check from Mountain View, helps explain why consumers who claim in surveys to be concerned about digital privacy are only too happy to let Google read their emails, track their movements, and even listen in on their living room conversations. In a 2016 survey, the Reputation Institute found Google to be the third most-trusted company in the world, behind only Rolex and Disney and well ahead of other tech companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon
That's why, one presumes, in a statement on its findings, the Campaign for Accountability expressly accused Google of being "in the same league as Big Oil and Big Pharma." (Defending itself, Google pointed out that the Campaign for Accountability, somewhat ironically, is funded by Oracle, a Google competitor, and doesn't disclose the full list of its financial backers.)
Of course, the optics of cutting checks to college professors and then waving around the papers that result on Capitol Hill aren't great. But, at core, this is a story about a massive for-profit entity advancing its aims through thoroughly legal means. If doing so doesn't chime with the popular notion of Google as a company that operates on a higher ethical plane, maybe the answer is to update that notion. Ironically, in using academics to manipulate its image, Google has offered us a more complete understanding of what kind of company it has become. That's not a bad thing.