The Wall Street Journal:
Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying $5,000 to $400,000 for the work, The Wall Street Journal found.
Some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions, according to thousands of pages of emails obtained by the Journal in public-records requests of more than a dozen university professors. The professors don’t always reveal Google’s backing in their research, and few disclosed the financial ties in subsequent articles on the same or similar topics, the Journal found.
University of Illinois law professor Paul Heald pitched an idea on copyrights he thought would be useful to Google, and he received $18,830 to fund the work. The paper, published in 2012, didn’t mention his sponsor. “Oh, wow. No, I didn’t. That’s really bad,” he said in an interview. “That’s purely oversight.”
In some years, Google officials in Washington compiled wish lists of academic papers that included working titles, abstracts and budgets for each proposed paper—then they searched for willing authors, according to a former employee and a former Google lobbyist.
Google promotes the research papers to government officials, and sometimes pays travel expenses for professors to meet with congressional aides and administration officials, according to the former lobbyist.
“Yeah, the money is good but it does get in the way of objective academic research,” said Daniel Crane, a University of Michigan law professor. He said he turned down Google’s offers to fund his research that opposed antitrust regulation of internet search engines. “If I am reading an academic paper, and they disclose an interest with a party with an interest in the outcome,” he said, “you take [the research] with a grain of salt.”
Paying for favorable academic research has long been a tool of influence by U.S. corporations in food, drug and oil industries. Scandals involving conflicts of interest in medical research have spurred many medical schools, scientific researchers and journals to require disclosure of corporate funding and to prohibit corporate sponsors from meddling with findings.
Microsoft has paid Harvard business professor Ben Edelman, the author of papers saying Google abuses its market dominance. Chip maker Qualcomm Inc. funded papers supporting its side of a fight against Google over patents. And telecommunication giants Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. have funded various papers against Google. The companies either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Google’s strategic recruitment of like-minded professors is one of the tech industry’s most sophisticated programs, and includes funding of conferences and research by trade groups, think tanks and consulting firms, according to documents and interviews with academics and lobbyists.
Early last year, Daniel Sokol, a University of Florida law professor, published an academic paper arguing that Google’s use of the data was legal. “There is no cause for concern in this arena,” he wrote. The paper also noted that no companies funded the research.
“If they did,” Mr. Sokol said in a footnote of the paper, he and his co-author “would be sipping Mai Tais with our respective friends and families on a beach in Hawaii based on the proceeds of such a sponsorship. We are not.”
Mr. Sokol, though, had extensive financial ties to Google, according to his emails obtained by the Journal. He was a part-time attorney at the Silicon Valley law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which has Google as a client. The 2016 paper’s co-author was also a partner at the law firm, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.
From at least as early as 2013, Mr. Sokol also has coordinated with Google officials to ensure online symposiums had a pro-Google bent. In March 2013, Mr. Sokol helped Paul Shaw, a Google public-policy official, persuade law professors to write papers for an online symposium on patents. Mr. Shaw sent Mr. Sokol a list of a dozen law professors along with specific topics for their papers. None was paid to participate. Mr. Shaw deferred comment to a company spokesman.
After the conference, Mr. Sokol submitted a $5,000 invoice to Google.
In September 2013, Mr. Sokol worked with Rob Mahini, a senior Google lawyer, to plan an online conference on a separate patent issue. Mr. Mahini identified professors to participate, and he asked Mr. Sokol to invite them.
After running into difficulty persuading professors to write papers for the conference, Mr. Sokol asked Mr. Mahini if Google could provide “some ‘encouragement’ to them to participate,” according to the emails. Mr. Sokol declined to explain what he meant. Google said it didn’t pay professors to participate. Mr. Mahini didn’t respond to requests for comment.
When the symposium ended, a Google assistant emailed Mr. Sokol about his bill. Mr. Sokol replied: “$5,000, like last time.”
Mr. Contreras said Google doesn’t pay professors to change their positions; it simply funds research that supports the company.
“I don’t think there’s any dishonesty here,” he said, “but they pick the right people who they know are going to say the right thing.”
In September 2012, the FTC was nearing a decision on whether to charge Google with antitrust violations, including its practice of favoring its shopping and travel services in search results. Google’s law firm, Wilson Sonsini, sent the FTC chairman an 8-page letter in the company’s defense and attached Google-funded research papers supporting its arguments.
Mr. Desai, now a law professor at Georgia Institute of Technology after leaving Google in 2012, said part of his job was to compile a list of “all the major policy academics in intellectual property so” Google lobbyists could know whom to follow and potentially target for papers.
For a broader examination of furtive influence (and the need for good reporting to scrutinize it), check out this wonderful piece by Michael Massing: