How Google Uses Its Power to Quash Unflattering Portrayals of the Company

Gizmodo writer recalls how the tech giant killed a story about how it wields its influence online.

September 3, 2017 5:00 am
Google Funded Research
The Wall Street Journal reports that Google paid researchers for papers that would help fight regulation. (Getty Images)

You may have seen the recent story in the New York Times about how the New America Foundation, a major think tank, dropped one of its teams of scholars, the Open Markets group. Leading up to the incident, the leader of Open Markets, Barry Lynn, had been warned by NAF’s CEO that he was “imperiling the institution” after he repeatedly criticized Google, a major funder of the think tank, for its market dominance.

The NAF’s break with Open Markets happened earlier this summer, not long after Lynn posted a statement to his group’s site supporting the European Commission’s recent decision to fine Google a record-breaking $2.7 billion for privileging its comparison service over others in search results. After the statement went up, NAF CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter told Lynn that his group had to leave the foundation for failing to abide by “institutional norms of transparency and collegiality.”

Now, Kashmir Hill, a writer for Gizmodo Media, claimed that this isn’t the first time Google has used its power squash ideas that it doesn’t like. In Hill’s case, she recounted how she wrote a critical piece about Google’s monopolistic practices years ago while she was working at Forbes. She said external pressure by Google—with implicit threats that Forbes’ online traffic would suffer—eventually compelled her to unpublish the story.

She said the incident began when she was pulled into a meeting with Google salespeople about the tech giant’s then-new social network, Plus. During the meeting, Google staffers explained that “if a publisher didn’t put a +1 button on the page, its search results would suffer.” Hill saw this as Google using its power in search and news to force publishers to promote its social network.

So after the meeting, Hill approached Google’s PR person as a reporter and asked the same question. The Google rep confirmed what she’d heard in the meeting. So she wrote a story, “Stick Google Plus Buttons On Your Pages, Or Your Search Traffic Suffers.” Key context: back in 2011, when this story published, a congressional antitrust committee was looking into whether the company was abusing its powers.

Google never challenged the accuracy of the reporting, Hill writes, but they immediately pushed back. They said the meeting was confidential and the information discussed was covered by a non-disclosure agreement. Hill disagreed, because she had never signed anything, and she had identified herself as a journalist. Under pressure, she took the article down.

Following that, Hill noted that Google search results completely stopped showing the original story, even though unpublished stories typically still show up in the results as a headline. Google never addressed this, but people who paid close attention to the search industry noticed and wrote about it, Hill recalled.

Read the full piece at Gizmodo.

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