Silicon Valley plays hardball
Tech Companies Aren’t Different

The Wall Street Journal has a bombshell piece on… wait for it… something not Trump-related. Apparently, America’s biggest internet company has been operating a well-funded under-the-table influence campaign aimed at encouraging academics to write papers supporting its political and regulatory interests.

Google operates a little-known program to harness the brain power of university researchers to help sway opinion and public policy, cultivating financial relationships with professors at campuses from Harvard University to the University of California, Berkeley.

Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying $5,000 to $400,000 for the work, The Wall Street Journal found. […]

The funding of favorable campus research to support Google’s Washington, D.C.-based lobbying operation is part of a behind-the-scenes push in Silicon Valley to influence decision makers. The operation is an example of how lobbying has escaped the confines of Washington’s regulated environment and is increasingly difficult to spot.

These revelations highlight the fact that traditional talking points for regulating corporate influence in politics—curbing formal lobbying or campaign finance contributions—are too limited and perhaps even increasingly irrelevant to our current challenges. Wealthy people and corporations can fund magazines and think tanks and non-profits and even academic research. The influence that flows from these endeavors equals or exceeds the influence from direct campaign contribution or registered lobbying outfits. Activists and politicians interested in making the system fairer and less vulnerable to plutocratic takeover need fresher and more innovative ideas than campaign contribution limits.

Also, Google’s campaign is a reminder of the fact that, as Walter Russell Mead noted in 2014, “Silicon Valley has turned from a hipster refuge for quirky nerds into the home of some of the world’s biggest and most aggressive corporations.” Contrary to the idealistic “save the world” ethos that it (increasingly unconvincingly) tries to project, technology is just like any other sector—energy, finance, or medicine—that is interested first and foremost in maximizing its profits, and, to that end, winning over the levers of the state.

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