How I Got Fired From a D.C. Think Tank for Fighting Against the Power of Google

The New America Foundation fired its Open Markets team after they praised the EU for fining Google over its monopoly power.

A Google logo is seen through windows of Moscone Center in San Francisco during Google's annual developer conference, Google I/O, in San Francisco on June 28, 2012 in California. AFP PHOTO / Kimihiro Hoshino        (Photo credit should read KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/GettyImages)
A Google logo is seen through windows of Moscone Center in San Francisco during Google's annual developer conference, Google I/O, in San Francisco on June 28, 2012. Photo: Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP/Getty Images

In 2010, while I was pushing to break up big banks because they had become too powerful, I started to realize that the problem in America wasn’t just big banks, it was corporate monopolies. But it was hard to find a strong contemporary voice writing about it or thinking about it, without going back a few generations.

Then I found Barry C. Lynn and the Open Markets team at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. They were doing deep investigations into the agriculture industry, looking at Monsanto and Tyson, and they were looking into how big companies privatize courts through arbitration. They were also looking at a troubling new feature of our digital economy – the great power wielded by a handful of tech companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Google. The Open Markets team was grounded not only in critique, but solutions: showing how old antitrust laws and principles could address the political and economic distortions caused by monopolies in our turbulent era.

In 2014, before running against Andrew Cuomo in the governor’s race in New York, I became a fellow of the Open Markets program, working out of their offices for three months and remaining affiliated after that brief residency. This small, brilliant team was doing what we need more of in America: introducing truly new ideas, following facts, proposing solutions, challenging power, and doing so with integrity, thoroughness, and imagination. The team’s ideas started filtering into American discourse — they were driving an intellectual revolution in the face of stagnation on left and right.

It turned out to be an unexpectedly perilous undertaking.

Lynn and his team pushed Democrats to embrace anti-monopoly as a serious policy issue, catalyzed a public debate about Amazon’s power, and spearheaded an intellectual revolution around antitrust enforcement to overturn the consumer welfare standard developed by Robert Bork. Even those who disagreed with Open Markets never questioned their integrity. As Cornell Law School Professor James Grimmelmann tweeted yesterday, “something unsettling and dangerous is happening in tech markets.” And while Grimmelmann often disagreed with Lynn and Open Markets, he added that “unless teams like Open Markets get the support and freedom they need to keep thinking and writing about it, NO ONE WILL.”

Apparently these ideas threatened Google.

In June, when the European Union fined Google $2.7 billion for abusing its dominant position to serve itself and quash competition, the Open Markets team put out a press statement that was entirely consistent with its longstanding position. It praised the EU’s action, and argued that American antitrust authorities should also look at Google’s use of its search power to leverage its influence in other markets.

New America’s leadership must have gotten an earful. Within 72 hours, New America’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, told Lynn that he — and all of us on the Open Markets team — had to leave. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Slaughter emailed Lynn to say that “the time has come for Open Markets and New America to part ways,” and the email accused Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole.” (After the Times story was published, Slaughter tweeted that the article was “false,” though she later added, “facts are largely right, but quotes are taken way out of context and interpretation is wrong.”)

For years, Google has provided funding to New America as part of its philanthropic giving. According to the Times, more than $21 million came to New America from Google and from Eric Schmidt and his family foundation (Schmidt is the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet). One would hope that Google would provide those funds in the best tradition of free thought: without ideological strings attached. But apparently the smallest dissent is too much to bear. Perhaps the Open Markets press release alone caused the rupture, or perhaps it was the last straw — while Open Markets had not spent as much time on Google as on other monopolies, Google may have realized the power of ideas, and worried that the anti-monopoly ideas shared by Lynn and the Open Markets team might be spreading.

One of the most important features of Lynn’s work is that he shows the connection between economic and political power. Monopolies threaten small business and beat up labor unions, but they also undermine all of our freedoms. Ironically, Google’s actions proved Lynn’s thesis better than any words can do — when a company becomes too powerful, it starts to act like a little prince, imagining that it can dictate ideas.

I was not a resident fellow, and my paycheck isn’t tied to Google’s actions. But I had kept my fellowship and worked with Open Markets on a regular basis — its work deeply informed my op-eds, scholarship, and talks. But, as of yesterday, my affiliation with New America is over, because Google apparently found the anti-monopoly project too threatening.

We will continue our work — I have agreed to be the board chair of a new organization, comprised of the same team, doing the same work. We will be launching in the fall, and I am helping to create a new digital campaign, Citizens Against Monopoly, to help channel the tremendous public concern that we know exists around monopoly power. Google’s actions make it more important than ever that we stand up to fight monopolies. At the end of the day, this is about freedom.

Top photo: A Google logo is seen through windows of Moscone Center in San Francisco during Google’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, in San Francisco on June 28, 2012.

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