Google has found itself in a new row involving copyright, but this time round it isn’t music-industry bodies facing off with the company. Well, not directly.
The opponent in this case is a US organisation called the Campaign for Accountability, which published a report this week alleging that “Google has paid scholars millions to produce hundreds of papers supporting its policy interests, following in the footsteps of the oil and tobacco industries”.
The organisation’s ‘Google Transparency Project’ claims to have identified 329 research papers published between 2005 and 2017 “on public policy matters of interest to Google that were in some way funded by the company”.
54% of them were written by authors directly funded by Google, and the rest working for or affiliated with groups or institutions that were funded by the company. 26% of the former group did not disclose the funding in their papers, rising to 87% of the latter group.
The report claims that “Google-funded studies on copyright issues also surged in 2012” at the height of proposed anti-piracy legislation in the US – the PIPA and SOPA acts.
However, the Campaign for Accountability also notes that some of the papers identified in its study were critical of Google – “Our inquiry included Google-funded scholarship regardless of whether it advanced Google’s policy agenda or not” – while adding that some “were authored by serious academics and appeared to employ reasonable methodologies”.
The report was taken seriously enough by the Wall Street Journal to cover it: “Paying Professors: Inside Google’s Academic Influence Campaign”. And Google is taking it seriously too: its director of public policy Leslie Miller published a blog post criticising the study as “highly misleading”.
Miller also claimed that “when we provide financial support, we expect and require grantees to properly disclose our funding”, and pointed to some of the papers covered that criticise the company.
There’s some knockabout aspects to this row. “The irony of discussing disclosures and transparency with the ‘Campaign for Accountability’ is that this group consistently refuses to name its corporate funders. And those backers won’t ‘fess up either,” wrote Miller, naming one as longtime Google foe Oracle. “We’re proud of our programs and their integrity. The ‘Campaign for Accountability’ and its funders are, clearly, not proud of theirs.”
(For its part, the Campaign’s executive director Daniel Stevens has already hit back: “Whenever Google’s bad behaviour is exposed, it invariably points the finger at someone else. Instead of deflecting blame, Google should address its record of academic astroturfing, which puts it in the same league as Big Oil and Big Tobacco,” he said. “Also, a little perspective: CfA is a small nonprofit organisation. In contrast, Google is one of the largest, most powerful and richest companies on the planet.”)
In the creative industries, it’s true that rightsholder bodies have funded and participated in research that targets Google’s business practices and the impact of its safe harbours.
Still, the Campaign for Accountability report does shed more light on the scale of Google’s funding for academic studies, which in turn supports the desire for proper, transparent disclosure of funding relationships in these papers – whoever the source of that funding is.