Oxford academics involved in Google’s push to influence public policy

Millions spent by tech giant on policy papers aimed at improving the regulatory climate

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Google HQ Photo: Ben Nuttall

A new report by the Campaign for Accountability (CfA) has revealed Google’s financial influence on academics and policy experts, showing that Google funding for 329 research papers since 2005.

The papers were in key public policy areas where regulatory changes could be perceived to cost the company significant amounts in fines and lost earnings, and were authored by academics from such institutions as Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard.

The revelations suggest Google is spending millions on seeking to sway public opinion and influence policy in favour of the company’s interest. CfA Executive Director, Daniel Stevens, said: “Google uses its immense wealth and power to attempt to influence policy makers at every level. 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.”

Google reportedly paid between £3,900 and £310,000 to authors for papers on topics crucial to its interests such as antitrust, privacy, search neutrality, patents and copyright. The CfA claim that the overwhelming majority of papers funded in some way by Google tended to support the company’s policy or legal positions. Papers funded by Google argue, for example, that collecting huge volumes of personal data was a fair exchange for the Google’s free services and that the company did not use its market dominance improperly.

The report further showed that in 66% of the cases the authors did not disclose the Google funding, with researchers at the universities of Bournemouth and Sussex among those who did not reveal their funding.

However, Oxford academics who received funding to write on Google’s policy interests did declare the payments. Google are also key funders of the Oxford Internet Institute, a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford.

Google’s funding for competition-themed papers spiked in 2015 when the European Commission filed formal antitrust charges against the company. Last month European regulators issued a record $2.71 billion fine against Google for unfairly favouring its own services over those of rivals in its search results.

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The CfA analysis attempts to show how Google creates the image of significant and expanding body of academic research supporting its policy positions – with Google-funded studies systematically citing each other, a practice which also helps hide the initial Google funding. Stevens argued that by doing this: “Google has joined a list of business sectors that have exercised a corrupting influence on academic research, including the tobacco industry over the effects of smoking and the fossil fuel industry over the science of climate change.”

Google dismissed the CfA report, describing it as “highly misleading”.

“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.”

Oxford University has been contacted for comment.

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