Setting the record straight on WSJ Google “Paying Professors” Article

The Wall Street Journal and the Oracle-funded Campaign for Accountability have issued reports on Google’s funding of academic research favorable to Google’s legal and policy positions.  I was quoted in the WSJ article and discussed at some length in the Campaign for Accountability report.  WSJ presented me as the good guy who declined Google’s offer of money and then sat in judgment on scholars funded by Google.  The WSJ report was factually accurate insofar as it reported that I declined Google funding, but gives the misimpression that I am a critic of people who do accept Google funding.  The Campaign for Accountability report acknowledged that I declined Google money, but nonetheless presented me as operating in an ethical grey zone by even speaking with Google.  Its report was sloppy, highly misleading, and scurrilous.

Let’s start with the facts.  In June of 2010, I was approached by two academics with Microsoft ties about collaborating on a paper regarding Google’s search practices.  We exchanged ideas until October, when it became clear that our views differed.  Microsoft wanted to use antitrust law against what it believed was deliberate bias in Google’s organic search results.  I was skeptical that there was a legitimate antitrust issue and concerned that the use of antitrust to police Internet search could chill pro-consumer innovation.  We amicably went our separate ways.

Over the next couple of years, I continued to work as an academic on Internet search regulation.  In the course my research, I interacted with a number of companies, lawyers, academics, and government officials interested in the issues.  I was particularly interested in understanding Google and Microsoft’s perspective on the issue, since they were the primary antagonists.  I had many conversations and interactions by e-mail, phone, and at conferences with people from both companies (as well as many others).  I shared drafts of my paper with both companies, asked for data from both companies, and pressed both companies to explain technical issues I didn’t fully understand.  Along the way, there was no doubt that my position would be generally against using antitrust to create a “search neutrality” principle.  Microsoft tried to persuade me to the contrary.  Google would have wanted me to come out even stronger than I ultimately did.  Such is the nature of open policy debate in a free society.

In June of 2011, while my first paper on search neutrality was still in draft form, Google inquired about my interest in the Google Research Grant program.  I didn’t pursue it.  They followed up one or two times, and I eventually explained in an e-mail that I wanted to pursue my own ideas independently so long as I was still in the process of drafting the paper on search neutrality.  I wanted to stake my position on search neutrality independently of any financial relationship with Google.  After that, I continued to have substantive exchanges with Google, Microsoft, and other stakeholders on the search issues as I wrote several follow-up articles and spoke at conferences.

The WSJ obtained my e-mail file pursuant to a FOIA request and asked me to comment on turning down Google funding.  I explained my reasons:  Given the particular paper I was writing, I felt that accepting Google funding could compromise my objectivity and cause other people to discount my views.  My comment was an explanation of my own reasons for declining funding in my particular circumstances.  It wasn’t meant as an indictment of others accepting funding–from Google or otherwise–in their particular circumstances.

The Campaign for Accountability report begins, unpromisingly, by getting my name wrong.  Hi guys.  It’s Daniel, not David.  That’s forgivable, but what follows, not so much.

The Campaign report acknowledges that I turned down the Google offer of funding, but then goes on to find nefarious significance in the fact that I subsequently circulated my draft to Google for comment.  They make no mention of the fact that I also circulated the draft to Microsoft or that I had many other interactions with stakeholders on all sides of the issue before, during, and after the drafting of the paper.  Their one-sided reporting gives the impression that I was sucked into Google’s influence, when I actually was having open interactions with people on all sides of the issue.

The Campaign seems to think that my interactions with Google raise “thorny and opaque disclosure issues surrounding corporate-funded research.”  In a report largely focused on non-disclosure of funding, this statement implies that I failed to disclose even my non-financial interactions with Google.  The Campaign omits to mention that, when I published the paper, I did disclose my conversations with Google–and with Microsoft.  That wasn’t ethically necessary, since I didn’t have any funding relationship with either entity, but it’s the kind of courtesy that academics generally practice.  I wonder what more “disclosure” the Campaign for Accountability would have liked to see from me.

Thus far, one might allow the Campaign the benefit of the doubt in reporting the facts one-sidedly, but the sentence that follows raises serious questions as to their good faith: “Crane later helped organize a conference on legal issues surrounding
autonomous vehicles at University of Michigan, an issue of great importance to Google as
it seeks to expand its sources of revenue beyond internet advertising.”

The obvious purpose of this sentence is to suggest that, even after turning down Google money, I continued to operate in the shadowy world of Google influence.  What hogwash.  Yes, I co-organized a conference on autonomous vehicles five years later and Google participated, as did many other companies with an interest in autonomous vehicles.  I personally had nothing to do with inviting Google, Google didn’t fund the conference, Google didn’t have a bigger voice at the table than fifteen or twenty other companies, nothing pro-Google emerged from the conference, it would have been weird to hold a conference on autonomous vehicles without inviting Google, and none of this had anything remotely to do with my work on search neutrality five years earlier.  The Campaign might as well have reported that I’ve been caught using gmail, watching YouTube videos, and using Google to search for argyle socks.

The Campaign’s report might have turned out less misleading if they had reached out to me to understand my perspective on their story–a standard ethical practice in journalism.  But apparently they were writing a hit piece for Oracle and their other undisclosed corporate clients, and therefore couldn’t be bothered with checking their facts.

I can understand that the Campaign was trying to make Google look bad, not me, but biased, unfair, incomplete, and nefariously suggestive reporting of this kind does not redound well to their reputation.

 

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