Professionalism/Barry Lynn, New America Foundation, and Google

In 2017, the liberal-leaning think tank New America (formerly New America Foundation) pushed out Barry Lynn and his Open Markets initiative. The president of New America, Anne-Marie Slaughter, made this decision following a statement made by Lynn in support of EU antitrust regulators' $2.7 billion fine on Google. Google and its then chairman Eric Schmidt have given significant donations to New America since its inception. Lynn believes he was fired because of Eric Schmidt’s displeasure regarding his statement. Slaughter claims Lynn’s lack of professionalism and collegiality, not the content of his work, was the cause of his firing. There is an element of “he said/she said” to the incident, but Google’s funding of New America brings attention to the ethical struggle members of nonprofit organizations face between staying true to their profession and succumbing to donor influence.


Background and ParticipantsEdit

New America FoundationEdit

 
Anne-Marie Slaughter

New America is a nonprofit think tank and civic innovation platform which advocates for the American Left. It is run by Anne-Marie Slaughter, the current president of New America who started her career in law and moved into policy. The New America is constructed of multiple different initiatives which address a wide range of public policy issues such as national security studies, technology, asset building, health, gender, energy, education, and the economy[1]. New America aims to influence public policy, share solutions to public problems through various partners, and develop tools to build democratic capacity[2]. The goal of the foundation is to create a renewed America that provides equal opportunity for all, has stable communities which provide universal benefits, and is secure and prosperous.

Open Markets InstituteEdit

 
Barry Lynn

In 2017, Open Markets Institute was a New America Initiative with the goal of protecting individual liberties and democracy from monopolies. It was run by Barry Lynn, a journalist who was against the market dominance of tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google. He worked with New America Foundation for 15 years researching the power of monopolies[3]. Open Markets Institute aims to have economic power equitably distributed across multiple companies. They aim to address the threats to democracy, individual liberties, and security caused by corporate concentration and monopolies [4]. Currently, Open Markets Institute is its own organization separate from the New America Foundation and still focuses on addressing issues associated with monopolies.

Google FundingEdit

New America received a lot of financial support from various companies. Some of the largest donators have been Google, Eric Schmidt (the former executive chairman of Google), and Eric Schmidt's family foundation. Collectively, they have donated more than $21 million dollars to the New America Foundation. This funding gave New America Foundation the financial leverage to become a powerful voice in policy debates[1]. It is not unusual for Google to fund different groups focused on telecommunication policy as they provide funding to many groups across the political spectrum. Google and New America have worked together for many advocacy goals such as net neutrality [5].

Incident with GoogleEdit

On June 27th, 2017, EU antitrust regulators fined Google $2.7 billion because Google was using its search engine to direct customers to its own shopping platform [6]. This behavior violated the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), one of the strictest online data laws in the world [7]. Barry Lynn published a statement on New America's website voicing support for EU penalties on Google [8]. Lynn said in the statement:

"The Open Markets Team congratulates European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager and the European competition authority for this important decision. Google's market power is one of the most critical challenges for competition policymakers in the world today. By requiring that Google give equal treatment to rival services instead of privileging its own, Vestager is protecting the free flow of information and commerce upon which all democracies depend. We call upon U.S. enforcers, including the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice, and states attorneys general, to build upon this important precedent, both in respect to Google and to other dominant platform monopolists including Amazon. U.S. enforcers should apply the traditional American approach to network monopoly, which is to cleanly separate ownership of the network from ownership of the products and services sold on that network, as they did in the original Microsoft case of the late 1990s" [8].

Following the release of this statement, Eric Schmidt voiced his displeasure to Anne-Marie Slaughter [9][1]. Google representatives threatened to cut off all funding to New America [5]. Lynn’s statement was taken off of New America's website temporarily before being reposted [1]. Tyra Mariani, the executive vice president of New America, claimed the removal was because of an "unintentional internal issue" that was not related to Google or Schmidt [1]. Hours after the statement, Anne-Marie Slaughter fired the Open Markets team, including Barry Lynn and nine others [1]. Lynn claimed that Slaughter gave in to pressure from Google and Schmidt, ultimately putting donors over the integrity of the think tank [1]. The incident was picked up quickly by many news outlets, with the New York Times publishing an article expressing concerns about Google’s influence on advocacy groups and think tanks on August 30th, 2017.

Emails between Lynn and SlaughterEdit

In response to the New York Times article, Slaughter released three emails she had sent to Lynn between 2016 and the day of Lynn’s firing. She claimed that his firing was "in no way way based on the content of [his] work," but instead due to his lack of collegiality, internal communication, and professionalism [10]. She cited another incident involving Lynn in 2016, where Lynn criticized the increasing market concentration of big tech companies including Google at a conference. Lynn’s statements got a lot of national attention after Senator Elizabeth Warren endorsed his work [11]. In her emails, Slaughter claimed Lynn had not notified New America of his decision to participate in the conference and mentioned she needed to give Google’s top lobbyist, Rep. Susan Molinari, an answer as to why they were not made aware that Senator Warren would attend the conference. Slaughter claimed Lynn’s statement in 2017 exhibited the same non-collegial behavior as in 2016 and violated institutional norms of notice and cooperation [11]. She later said Lynn imperiled the institution with his actions [10]. Slaughter denied that Google had any influence in Lynn’s firing and that the decision to part with Open Markets was solely due to Lynn’s pattern of unprofessionalism [11].

Slaughter only released her side of the email exchange with Lynn. The Intercept was able to obtain Lynn’s responses, which show a conflicting narrative to that posed by Slaughter. In response to Slaughter’s displeasure about the 2016 conference, Lynn claims he did give an internal heads-up before attending the conference [11]. In fact, he even tried to involve another group at New America, Open Technology Institute, to co-sponsor the conference [11]. He was confused why Slaughter claimed she was not aware of it. He openly acknowledged the difficult position Slaughter was in, given Google’s funding. He had originally planned to host Senator Warren at New America’s annual conference in May, 2016, but moved her speech to a different conference without New America’s name to avoid any discomfort. Lynn also said it is not standard industry practice to notify an outside company, such as Google, about articles or events from Open Markets. In response to his firing, Lynn disagreed with Slaughter’s characterization of his behavior as unprofessional and tried to resolve the issue, even expressing his affection for New America and Slaughter herself. Other New America fellows have come out in support of Lynn. One even stated that Slaughter’s emails are “ not a reference to being a jerk or yelling at somebody or being an unpleasant colleague. What imperils the organization is pissing off a major donor who will stop funding you” [12]. Another employee said that giving a heads up to outside companies was "not a standard of policy that applied to everyone. It seemed to apply to Barry and to Google” [12].

Professional EthicsEdit

Barry Lynn’s firing brings attention to an increasingly prevalent struggle that think tanks and similar organizations face between staying true to their mission statement or succumbing to donor influence. As funding from traditional foundations becomes increasingly rare, think tanks have started to look towards corporations for money, sometimes even accepting conditions that they previously would have considered laughable [9].

Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example, was in a tricky situation and had to pull off a tough balancing act. On one hand, she relies on donors like Google and Schmidt to keep the think tank functioning and pay her employees. On the other hand, she risks losing New America’s credibility as a think tank if it does not appear independent of its funding sources. For a long time, it was easy for Slaughter to reconcile the interests of Google and New America’s mission because there was significant overlap. As Google became increasingly dominant economically and socially, this balancing act became infinitely more difficult. In firing Lynn, Slaughter made a decision to put her career over New America’s mission and the integrity of the think tank. In this instance, Slaughter can be characterized as a careerist.

Slaughter’s characterization of Barry Lynn as unprofessional is also problematic. Slaughter seems to be defining a “professional” as someone who is collegial and complies with what they are told to do by their superiors without creating a fuss. Although Barry Lynn was collegial, he did not give way to Slaughter’s demands and Google's pressure. He had a long history of challenging the monopoly power of big corporations (Walmart, Amazon, etc.), and did not change his behavior when his work concerned Google. In many ways, his behavior better exemplifies professionalism than Slaughter’s implied definition. Lynn may have had more freedom than Slaughter to remain professional as he had less to lose. His endorsement from Senator Warren had made him a well-known figure and he was able to secure funding from other donors. Lynn continued to speak out against Big Tech. Open Markets, still headed by Lynn, became an independent organization [13].

ConclusionEdit

The same issues facing Lynn and Slaughter are prevalent in many other industries. For example, a university researcher may feel pressure from a donor to find conclusions favorable to the donor. In the think tank and advocacy space, there are fewer and fewer groups who are not heavily influenced by their donors. Real change seems to be born from self funded efforts. For example, Alastair Mactaggart, the privacy advocate who pushed CCPA into reality, almost entirely funded his original advocacy campaign himself. True professionals must continue to question the motives behind their behavior: whether their actions are in accordance with the integrity of their profession or are simply to advance their own careers.

ReferencesEdit

  1. a b c d e f g Vogel, Kenneth. (30 August, 2017). Google Critic Ousted From Think Tank Funded by the Tech Giant. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/us/politics/eric-schmidt-google-new-america.html
  2. New America. (2021). Our Story. https://www.newamerica.org/our-story/
  3. Open Markets Institute. (2021). Barry C. Lynn. https://www.openmarketsinstitute.org/staff/barry-c-lynn
  4. Open Markets Institute. (2021). Our Mission. https://www.openmarketsinstitute.org/our-mission
  5. a b Yglesias, M. (2017, August 30). A leading Google critic's firing from a Google-funded think tank, explained. Vox. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/30/16226616/barry-lynn-google-new-america
  6. Riley, Charles and Kottasova, Ivana. (20 March, 2019). Europe hits Google with a third, $1.7 billion antitrust fine. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/20/tech/google-eu-antitrust
  7. https://gdpr-info.eu/
  8. a b New America. (2017, June 27). Open Markets Applauds the European Commission's Finding Against Google for Abuse of Dominance. https://www.newamerica.org/open-markets/press-releases/open-markets-applauds-european-commissions-finding-against-google-abuse-dominance/
  9. a b Farrell, H. (2018, February 14). Analysis | A liberal think tank has just pushed out an employee who criticized Google. That's worrying. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/30/a-liberal-think-tank-has-just-pushed-out-an-employee-who-criticized-google-thats-worrying/
  10. a b New America. (30 August, 2017). In the Interest of Transparency, New America Releases Email Correspondence with Barry Lynn. https://www.newamerica.org/new-america/press-releases/interest-transparency-new-america-releases-email-correspondence-barry-lynn/
  11. a b c d e Dayen, D. (2017, September 01). New Think Tank Emails Show "How Google Wields its Power" in Washington. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2017/08/31/new-america-google-open-markets-barry-lynn-anne-marie-slaughter/
  12. a b Tiku, N. (2017, September 07). New America Chair Says Google Didn't Prompt Critic's Ouster. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/new-america-chair-says-google-didnt-prompt-critics-ouster/
  13. Mullins, Luke. (15 September, 2019). Big Tech Is About to Spend a Ton of Money to Fight These People. Washingtonian. https://www.washingtonian.com/2019/09/15/big-tech-spend-money-to-fight-barry-lynn-open-markets/