A story about a U.S. antitrust investigation of Google incorrectly reported Microsoft's role with the Association for Competitive Technology. While Microsoft is a longtime financial sponsor of the trade group, which has often allied itself with Microsoft's policy views, it is not a co-founder. That incorrect characterization also appeared in a Dec. 11 article and a July 29 column.
For the past five years, the McLean, Va.-based analyst has churned out an endless stream of anti-Google papers, memos, research, testimony -- even a book: "Search & Destroy: Why You Can't Trust Google Inc." While his views that Google is a dangerous monopolist once seemed like a fringe theory, it has now drawn the attention of antitrust and privacy regulators throughout the world.
"I feel less lonely," Cleland said. "I have a strong belief that the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they turn truly."
But as Cleland's crusade has gained popularity it has also gained funding -- to a degree that he won't disclose -- from Google's competitors, including Microsoft. While he insists that his influential views remain his own, the financial connection begs the very real question of
And in that conflict, too, he is not alone. In recent years, a vast shadow army of law firms, public relations specialists, trade organizations, pundits, think tanks and academics has emerged to dominate the debate over Google -- and many of them are paid for their opinions.
I first became aware of these connections while working on a profile of Cleland several months ago. While there is little disclosure required of these activities, after a few months of digging around I found enough to link some of the loudest voices in the escalating battles between Google and its competitors to the payrolls of those competitors -- or to the Mountain View Internet giant itself.
That matters because it means the people framing issues of vital interest to us consumers, often seen as dispassionate analysts, are actually paid advocates, distorting our understanding of what's at stake and possibly influencing how regulators around the world are making decisions that affect the future of our daily lives in a Web-connected world.
"With official lobbying, they're going in through the front door and trying to sell you an opinion and they're not trying to pretend to be anything but a hired gun," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. But the bigger universe of commentators who are paid on the side, she continued, "is so amorphous and so differentiated, it's difficult to try to put your hands around it. This is where policy may be unduly skewed by paid interests."
Alas, engaging third parties is a time-honored tradition in the Capitol, used by a wide range of industries such as pharmaceuticals, utilities, automakers and cigarette manufacturers. Decades ago, the high-tech industry deplored how these old-line companies played politics. Today, it's working to perfect the method.
In my reporting on Google and its competitors, I found too many connections to list in this column; see a companion online column for more. For the remainder of this piece, I'll focus on a handful to show how the game works.
An early lesson
Microsoft learned firsthand about how important such efforts are back in the 1990s, when Silicon Valley competitors retained lawyers such as Gary Reback to make the case to regulators that Microsoft was a monopoly.
A decade later, Microsoft has embraced many of the same tactics to set the stage for antitrust and privacy actions against Google. In essence, the argument is that Google has gained such a commanding share of the Internet search and advertising markets that it is now using that power to favor its own products, squash competitors and trample on users' privacy.
Google blames Microsoft's campaign as the real source of its regulatory troubles. But Google's opponents say while Microsoft has a lead role, it is tapping into a wide swath of companies who fear Google and its power. And as one Washington insider noted, this is typically the way the ground is laid for an antitrust case. Average people don't march on the nation's capital demanding action by bureaucratic trust busters.
In the late 1990s, Microsoft belatedly co-founded the Association for Competitive Technology to help make its case that it was innocent of antitrust allegations. While too late to have much impact then, the association today is among Google's most vocal critics. So is ICOMP, or the Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace, another Microsoft-founded group that created controversy recently in Europe when seminars it held on antitrust issues were criticized as Google-bashing propaganda.
Microsoft has helped buy some considerable legal firepower to help build the case against Google, including none other than its former nemesis, Reback, who represents the Open Book Alliance that has been challenging Google's book-scanning project.
Microsoft is also funding academic research from sympathetic scholars, as well as launching a policy blog in partnership with a number of universities, including the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law. While the blog is ostensibly neutral and does include a range of policy opinions, it was launched with the help of the Adfero Group, a Washington strategic consulting and communications firm hired by Microsoft.
In response to questions about these efforts, a Microsoft spokesman referred me to a blog post written by Dave Heiner, the company's vice president and deputy general counsel:
"Google's public response to this growing regulatory concern has been to point elsewhere -- at Microsoft. ... Of course, as we have always said, it is vitally important that competition law authorities also listen to and assess the views of customers, business partners and everyone else affected by a dominant player's business practices. Ultimately what's important is not who is complaining, but whether or not the challenged practices are anticompetitive."
Google fights back
If you're looking for critics of the various antitrust investigations against Google, you will inevitably stumble across the writings of the prolific Geoffrey Manne, executive director of the International Center for Law and Economics.
Manne has co-authored such papers as "Google and the Limits of Antitrust: The Case Against the Antitrust Case Against Google." He has blogged in Google's defense on numerous conservative blogs, written pro-Google articles in Foreign Affairs, and testified in its favor before Congress.
Like many Google supporters, Manne argues that the company isn't a monopoly, that competing search engines are just one click away, and that the Internet industry is constantly being disrupted so that no incumbent is truly secure.
But you have to squint just a bit harder to see an important disclosure Manne makes: Google is among his sources of funding.
Manne founded the International Center for Law and Economics to serve as a matchmaking service for companies looking for scholars whose views would be potentially sympathetic to their policy positions. He got the idea from his previous employer: Microsoft. Manne was working as a legal scholar when he was recruited by the company to oversee a program handing out grants to researchers who were likely to be in sync with the company's policy views. Manne, a staunch critic of antitrust enforcement, said he left when it became clear that Microsoft wanted to use antitrust investigations to hobble Google.
About his current work, "You're absolutely right to say it is a gray area," Manne said. "It's not from our point of view. But it's gray from the way it's perceived by other people."
Gray, perhaps, but crystal clear to Google, which has made it clear that it wants to avoid the mistakes Microsoft made in the 1990s when it failed to recognize the growing threat of government antitrust investigations. That means Google has rapidly built up its lobbying efforts and poured money into political campaigns.
Information about some of Google's initiatives can be found on a corporate website, which includes links to its lobbying reports, campaign finance filings, a list of trade associations it has joined, and third parties it supports.
But it doesn't include the extent of its funding of research to folks like Manne, or the law and public relations firms it hires.
In addition to Manne, Google has helped fund other bloggers with anti-regulatory leanings. It's also paying lawyers who comment critically on the antitrust claims made against the company and write on popular blogs like the Huffington Post. Google acknowledges these efforts, but it makes a clear distinction between its tactics and those of Microsoft.
Adam Kovacevich, head of Competition Public Policy and Public Affairs at Google, said the company uses these third parties to defend itself, or to defend larger concepts, and not to attack competitors.
"We invest in helping policymakers understand our business and we support organizations that defend Internet freedom, but we haven't created fake AstroTurf groups or propped up voices to attack our competitors," he said. "Credibility is important, and most people in D.C. are smart enough to see through those tactics."
Perhaps, but there's no way to be sure. And wondering whether policymakers and the public are in the dark when making critical decisions is always a dangerous place for our democracy to be.
Contact Chris O'Brien at 415-298-0207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/obrien and read his blog posts at www.siliconbeat.com.