How Google uses its power to silence critics

Google uses its significant financial power and influence to squash critics. That’s the conclusion from two former critics both of whom were pressured after publishing stories critical of the company’s practices. Thursday, Barry Lynn wrote a piece for the Post describing the situation that led to his firing by the The New America Foundation think tank. Lynn, who has spent his career writing about monopolies, published a piece on the New Foundation site applauding a European decision to fine Google. Two days later his entire team was fired after pressure from the company:

This last June 27, my group published a statement praising the European Union for fining Google for violating antitrust law. Later that day I was told that Google — which provides substantial support to other programs at New America — said they wanted to sever all ties with the organization. Two days later I was told that the entire team of my Open Markets Program had to leave New America by September 1.

No think tank wants to appear beholden to the demands of its corporate donors. But in this instance, that’s exactly the case. I — and my entire team of journalists and researchers  at Open Markets — were let go because the leaders of my think tank chose not to stand up to Google’s threats

Over at Gizmodo, Kashmir Hill has a similar story. While working at Forbes, Hill wrote about Google’s attempt to pressure the company into using their Google Plus network:

The Google salespeople were encouraging Forbes to add Plus’s “+1″ social buttons to articles on the site, alongside the Facebook Like button and the Reddit share button. They said it was important to do because the Plus recommendations would be a factor in search results—a crucial source of traffic to publishers.

Hill confirmed the information with Google’s PR people and then published a story about what she had been told. She writes that Google immediately “flipped out.” They asked her to unpublish the story saying the meeting had been confidential. They also applied pressure on her superiors:

It escalated quickly from there. I was told by my higher-ups at Forbes that Google representatives called them saying that the article was problematic and had to come down. The implication was that it might have consequences for Forbes, a troubling possibility given how much traffic came through Google searches and Google News.

Eventually, because she was new and didn’t want to cause problems for her employer, Hill pulled the story. She says she was amazed how quickly all trace of it disappeared from the internet:

Somehow, very quickly, search results stopped showing the original story at all. As I recall it—and although it has been six years, this episode was seared into my memory—a cached version remained shortly after the post was unpublished, but it was soon scrubbed from Google search results. That was unusual; websites captured by Google’s crawler did not tend to vanish that quickly. And unpublished stories still tend to show up in search results as a headline. Scraped versions could still be found, but the traces of my original story vanished.

So you have Google using its influence to fire people, to push its technology using its search dominance as leverage, to kill a story about its attempt to use that leverage, and (apparently) to make the pulled story disappear from search results. As we saw with the firing of James Damore, the company has already taken sides on cultural and social issues internally. What happens when it decides to leverage its power on behalf of those issues or a candidate that represents them?