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New Think Tank Emails Show “How Google Wields its Power” in Washington


By David Dayen
The Intercept

Barry Lynn, the critic of monopolies fired this week from the New America Foundation, insisted in emails to his superiors that pressure from Google got him and his Open Markets program terminated. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the think tank’s CEO,  has denied that Google played any role in Lynn’s termination from the think tank.

Last night, New America released three emails from Slaughter to Lynn. They reference two separate events: an anti-monopoly conference organized by the Open Markets program in June 2016 that featured Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as the keynote speaker, and a series of communications in June and July 2017, involving the termination of Lynn and his group.

The emails New America released did not include Lynn’s side of the email. The Intercept obtained his responses.

The first set of emails concerned the June 2016 conference, notable because a politician of Warren’s stature made a full-throated endorsement of Lynn’s work. For 15 years, Lynn has pointed out the dangers of increasing concentration in practically every sector of the U.S. economy, including technology and internet companies.

Slaughter began the chain by asking Lynn to answer questions — which were not in the emails obtained by The Intercept — from Meredith Hanley, New America’s director of development, who is responsible for day-to-day fundraising. Slaughter mentioned that she would be meeting with Google’s top lobbyist, former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., and she needed answers about why Lynn’s New America colleagues and Google weren’t alerted about the conference and Warren’s participation.

Google, and the family foundation of Eric Schmidt, executive chair of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, have donated $21 million to New America over the years.

Lynn responded that he did give a heads-up internally, even trying to get another group at New America, the Open Technology Institute (which works on universal internet access and net neutrality), to co-sponsor the event. OTI declined, Lynn said, but discussed having some of their representatives moderate panels. Lynn concluded that he didn’t understand how anyone at OTI or New America would feel surprised by the event.

As for Google, Lynn said it wasn’t standard practice to alert an outside company about events or articles from his team (there’s a reference to such a request from Stephanie Valencia, who works on “strategic outreach and partnerships” at Google). Moreover, the event was publicly announced, and the eventual co-sponsor, the Capitol Forum, actively sought participation from Google employees on one of the panels.

The email is collegial, and Lynn openly acknowledges the tough spot Slaughter and Hanley faced, given Google’s funding support. He adds that Warren had originally planned to give her anti-monopoly speech at New America’s annual conference that May, which Lynn discouraged because it might create high-level discomfort. So it got moved to the June conference.

Slaughter’s response to Lynn is what got published last night. “I have to say I am with Meredith on this,” she wrote. “We worked so hard with you to get you 11th Hour funding; just THINK about how you are imperilling [sic] funding for others.” There’s at least a hint in there that Google would strip funding from New America if any part of the organization hosted a popular senator warning of threats from monopolies like Google. Slaughter also references “trying to expand our relationship with Google,” and asks Lynn for some talking points to use with Molinari.

The next series of emails concern Lynn’s firing a year later. It’s generally understood that the precipitating event was a 150-word press release from Open Markets, applauding the European Union for its $2.7 billion fine against Google for violating antitrust laws with its Google Shopping tool, which preferred its own programs over that of rivals. The New York Times reported that Schmidt voiced his displeasure to Slaughter about the press release, which then was temporarily removed from the New America website. Lynn was told that Open Markets would have to separate from New America a couple days later.

New America released two of the three emails in this chain: Slaughter’s recap of the June 29 conversation informing Lynn that New America and Open Markets would part ways, and a later email where Slaughter says, “I am disappointed in your response below, as I made clear repeatedly that I am absolutely not deciding that we must part ways based on any response from Google.” Lynn’s side of the conversation was not included in New America’s email release.

In that response, Lynn took issue with Slaughter’s characterization. He accepted the attempt to work toward a swift resolution and reiterated his affection for New America and Slaughter herself. But he disagreed that he had acted in any unprofessional manner during his tenure. And he states very explicitly his understanding of the June 29 conversation, that Google’s response to the press release about the EU fine was why Open Markets had to be cast off. Slaughter denies this in her follow-up email, saying that the issue was Lynn’s behavior, which “has been troubling to myself and your colleagues for over a year.”

There is certainly a he said/she said element to these emails. Slaughter thinks Lynn wasn’t sensitive enough to giving notice internally about his team’s practices; Lynn thinks that the content of his work, not the communication of it, was the problem. Without more context it’s hard to say much definitively. But the additional emails from Lynn do not show someone dismissive of his colleagues or the tricky situation at New America. And though Slaughter protests that Google’s influence played no role in the firing, New America’s funding from the tech giant hangs over the entire set of exchanges.

“The emails clearly show the influence that Google wields over New America’s operations,” stated the Open Markets team in a statement provided to The Intercept. “What Google did in pressuring New America to suppress the work of reporters and researchers who have directly criticized how Google wields its power is common among think tanks in D.C. It is why Louis Brandeis warned tirelessly of the political dangers posed by concentrations of power. The only unusual aspect of this particular situation is that Google got caught.” (New America and Slaughter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

Just this week, Google said they would comply with the EU’s request to change its shopping search so it no longer discriminates against rivals.

Correction: Aug. 31, 9:18 p.m.

Due to an editing error, this story originally misidentified Molinari’s party affiliation. She is a former Republican congressperson.

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