I wrote recently about how Google is in danger of breaking the implicit social contract with its users by becoming seen as a politicized organization. But that was when Google was seen by the Right as being politicized for firing an engineer who expressed politically incorrect ideas.
Now Google is using its political influence against the Left by getting a group of scholars bounced out of a center-left think tank for supporting antitrust action against Google’s “monopoly.”
The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left and helped Google shape those debates.
But not long after one of New America’s scholars posted a statement on the think tank’s website praising the European Union’s penalty against Google, Mr. Schmidt, who had been chairman of New America until 2016, communicated his displeasure with the statement to the group’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, according to the scholar….
[A] couple of days later,… Ms. Slaughter summoned the scholar who wrote the critical statement, Barry Lynn, to her office. He ran a New America initiative called Open Markets that has led a growing chorus of liberal criticism of the market dominance of telecom and tech giants, including Google, which is now part of a larger corporate entity known as Alphabet, for which Mr. Schmidt serves as executive chairman.
Ms. Slaughter told Mr. Lynn that ‘the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways,’ according to an email from Ms. Slaughter to Mr. Lynn…. Ms. Slaughter accused Mr. Lynn of ‘imperiling the institution as a whole.’
Now, all of a sudden, Google being politicized is bad. I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored.
The tech industry, and particularly its five big players—Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft—are the rising corporate titans of our era. Not only are they among the biggest companies in our economy, they are overflowing with profitability, generating enormous amounts of cash that they are able to splash around in ways that older, mature, and leaner companies can’t do.
They’re the places that build gleaming new corporate campuses like Apple’s Spaceship (the equivalent, in a previous era, of building tall downtown skyscrapers), complete with whole company towns of housing and retail (such as Facebook’s new Willow Campus), who give out generous salaries and astonishing perks to their workers, and who also are the new cash-rich sponsors for art and culture—and for think tanks. In short, they fill the role that used to be filled, in the mid-twentieth century, by old-fashioned industrial firms: automakers, oil companies, steel manufacturers, and the like. Google is the new GE.
At the same time (with the exception of Microsoft for a while back in the 1990s), these companies have escaped much of the suspicion and resentment that is usually directed at fast-growing, extremely influential, and cash-abundant corporations. Partly they have done this by seeming cool and hip and geeky-glamorous. But they have also done it by striking an implicit bargain with the political left: they back the Left on its cultural agenda, in exchange for which the Left agrees not to look too closely at these companies’ market dominance or their schemes for tax avoidance.
As one observer puts it:
If Alphabet were Monsanto or General Motors or Pfizer, most people probably wouldn’t even feign surprise. But for many years, just the word Google conferred a special halo on otherwise anodyne projects. They were the standard-bearers for the future and were afforded a generosity of intention that no other company received. But no matter the color of its logo, Alphabet’s money is green, too, and it exerts the same power as anyone else’s.
It is entirely natural for a company to not want to give money to people calling for its destruction, and I totally support that. Yet Google and many other big tech firms have also tried to present themselves as beacons of “progressive ideals.” That’s why they funded the New America Foundation, which this article refers to as a center of “market-friendly Silicon Valley progressivism.” What’s progressive about it if it’s “market-friendly”? Well, the big tech companies and the people who work for them tend to back Democratic Party candidates. They pay lip service to “progressive” policies like the basic income. And they do things like firing employees for opinions the Left deems offensive, or targeting right-leaning YouTube channels for “demonetization.”
That’s what “Silicon Valley progressivism” means: be the Left’s enforcers against heretics and infidels in the culture wars, in exchange for (temporary) dispensation for your sins against the Left in the realm of economics.
By targeting Google for prosecution under the antitrust laws—the brainchild of the original Progressives, by the way—the Open Markets team breached this unspoken bargain, and that’s why they had to go. Even if Google or Schmidt didn’t directly order the firing, the big tech companies are the new centers of overflowing corporate abundance, without which think tanks like the New America Foundation can’t thrive, so they didn’t need anyone to give anyone instructions.
It’s not just this case, or the Damore affair. Another reporter has come forward to describe how Google pressured Forbes to deep-six her exposé of Google’s aggressive negotiating tactics, for fear of having Google cut off their flow of Web traffic.
Unlike some on the Right who are willing to throw out their principles just for spite, I’m not taking sides with those who want to sic the antitrust laws on Google. I have long thought that trying to regulate technology companies under antitrust laws is absurd and destructive, ever since I defended Microsoft against claims that bundling a Web browser with an operating system would give them total power over the world. Subsequently, of course, it turned out that a search engine was way more important than a browser, and the operating system on your desktop computer didn’t matter much once everybody started using smartphones. Silicon Valley very quickly demonstrated that continued innovation is more dangerous to the power and influence of established firms than any regulator.
That should also be taken as a warning to Google that they have helped put in place forces that can profoundly undermine their own position in the market. Google still has by far the best search engine (for now). But its business model is much wider and involves billions of users letting the company become intimately involved in every detail of their lives—their Web searches, their e-mail, their online purchases, their queries to digital assistants—so Google can mine all of our lives for data.
That, too, relies on an implicit bargain: that we trust them not to abuse their position and only use our data for the relatively benign purpose of selling us stuff. For them to be seen now as a politicized organization, not just by the Right but by the Left, could end up subjecting them to a level of hostility and distrust that is incompatible with their big data business plans.
“Market-friendly Silicon Valley progressivism” may turn out to be just another unstable compromise, in which Google enforces “progressive” dictates in the culture war in order to carve out a special pro-business exception for themselves—which, if history is any guide, will be short-lived.
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