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The Soft Corruption of Big Tech’s Antitrust Defense
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are paying third parties millions to make their case. Sometimes we know about the money, sometimes we don’t.
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When New York State Senator Michael Gianaris called a hearing last September to discuss his new Big Tech antitrust bill, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft all declined to appear. But as he sorted the schedule, the Progressive Policy Institute, a “radically pragmatic” think tank, asked to send a representative.
Alec Stapp, that representative, mounted a robust defense of Big Tech in prepared remarks at the session. But when Giannaris started asking about PPI’s funding, he clammed up. “In my role in research,” Stapp said. “I'm not privy to the full donor list or who gives how much money.”
Left unsaid was that Apple, Facebook, and Google are all PPI donors, a fact that still frustrates Gianaris. “If Big Tech wants to defend itself,” he told me, “It should have the courage to do so.”
That courage seems to be slipping away as support for antitrust action against Big Tech builds. These companies are instead paying third parties like PPI to make their case for them, and the organizations reliably advance their arguments, do so with spotty disclosure, shield them from criticism, and add credibility to their defense. It’s money well spent for the tech giants. All the while, the third parties tell us — and themselves — they aren’t bought.
Stapp’s PPI is relatively unknown, but it’s not alone. The Brookings Institution, an esteemed think tank, takes money from Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Yet it implausibly insists the money doesn’t influence its positions. In an article suggesting 21 questions Congress should ask Big Tech ahead of their CEOs’ hearing last year, Brookings claimed its findings were “not influenced by any donation.” Yet its questions included softballs like, “What is your greatest hope about technology today?” A more honest statement would admit that when companies spend money, they’re buying something.
Brookings would not stand fully by its disclosure when reached for comment. The institution, a spokesperson wrote to me, “has adopted policies that enshrine the requirement that its personnel not permit the interests of any outside party to inappropriately influence Brookings’s work.” The addition of the word “inappropriately” leaves open the possibility that tech giant money does influence Brookings’ work, just in ways it finds appropriate.
“It's very, very telling,” Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which examines corporate money and does not take it, told me. “Because the question is, what do they define is appropriate?”
Articles and testimony with faulty disclosures are what we see in public. Behind the scenes, there’s a full array of briefings with officials and “background” conversations with reporters that are never disclosed.
“Saw a couple lists of what think tanks and organizations Google and Facebook fund and was thinking back through my conversations with those people,” one reporter told me. “Was trying to think of negative things they said about those companies. Couldn’t.” The reporter said he was rethinking his relationship with these organizations.
Tech giant-funded third parties also recruit small businesses to write opinion pieces supporting their positions in local newspapers; a practice called grasstops, which Big Technology covered last summer. And sometimes they do the work themselves, like when Stapp wrote a piece in the MIT Technology Review last year claiming that “Congress made a lousy case for breaking up Big Tech.” Stapp, who declined to comment for this story, only disclosed that Amazon, Google, and Facebook fund PPI after publication, in a correction at the bottom of the page.
New York Times columnist David Brooks was also part of this influence campaign, at least until recently. Earlier this month, BuzzFeed News reported Brooks was pulling in a second salary from the Aspen Institute for his work on a project called Weave, a project that Facebook, and other companies Brooks comments on, funds. Brooks resigned from Aspen after BuzzFeed News brought its finding to the Times. But not before writing a blog post on Facebook’s website praising its Groups product.
Aspen, Brookings, and PPI are just a small selection of the organizations the tech giants fund, and though they do disclose who they donate to, we may never know the full extent. “Despite the detailed disclosures, the exact totals of the donations are difficult to pin down,” Nirit Weiss-Blatt, author of a forthcoming book on the techlash, told me. “We don’t have full transparency. Thus, we don’t know how much money is flooding the zone.”
The tech giants, of course, are entitled to donate to think tanks and spend money to influence the conversation about their companies. They have a right to speech, and a right to make their counterargument. But as long as the misleading, missing, and sometimes delusional disclosures persist, they’ll be undermining an oversight process they’ve brought on themselves.
“The problem is the tech giants are incredibly powerful and disproportionately so,” Sen. Gianaris told me. “They set up either fake groups or co-opt more legitimate ones to do their bidding in the realm of public discourse, in a way that is not transparent and pretends it's more objective than it actually is.”
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