A recent scientific paper proposed that, like Big Tobacco in the Seventies, Big Tech thrives on creating uncertainty around the impacts of its products and business model. One of the ways it does this is by cultivating pockets of friendly academics who can be relied on to echo Big Tech talking points, giving them added gravitas in the eyes of lawmakers.
Google highlighted working with favourable academics as a key aim in its strategy, leaked in October 2020, for lobbying the EU’s Digital Markets Act – sweeping legislation that could seriously undermine tech giants’ market dominance if it goes through.
Now, a New Statesman investigation can reveal that over the last five years, six leading academic institutes in the EU have taken tens of millions of pounds of funding from Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft to research issues linked to the tech firms’ business models, from privacy and data protection to AI ethics and competition in digital markets. While this funding tends to come with guarantees of academic independence, this creates an ethical quandary where the subject of research is also often the primary funder of it.
The New Statesman has also found evidence of an inconsistent approach to transparency, with some senior academics failing to disclose their industry funding. Other academics have warned that the growing dependence on funding from the industry raises questions about how tech firms influence the debate around the ethics of the markets they have created.
The Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), for example, received a $7.5m grant from Facebook in 2019 to fund five years of research, while the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin, has accepted almost €14m from Google since it was founded in 2012, and the tech giant accounts for a third of the institute’s third-party funding.
Researchers at Big Tech-funded institutions told the New Statesman they did not feel any outward pressure to be less critical of their university’s benefactors in their research.
But one, who wished to remain anonymous, said Big Tech wielded a subtle influence through such institutions. They said that the companies typically appeared to identify uncritical academics – preferably those with political connections – who perhaps already espoused beliefs aligned with Big Tech. Companies then cultivate relationships with them, sometimes incentivising academics by granting access to sought-after data.
Companies such as Google and Facebook sponsor universities for “outreach and what I would call ‘industrial presence’,” said Michel Bernard, a former Google academic outreach officer for France. He worked on developing relationships with universities on technical subjects, such as AI and internet and cloud computing, but said he was aware of policy-aligned topics gaining importance towards the end of his tenure in 2017.
He said the company “would contact a professor or faculty, invite them to make a speech at Google and then explore some partnerships, then we would, of course, have many researchers attending and participating in conferences and events”.
Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information at Oxford University’s Internet Institute, is one of the most high-profile and influential European tech policy experts, who has advised the European Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the Foreign Office, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Vatican.
Floridi is one of the best-connected tech policy experts in Europe, and he is also one of the most highly funded. The ethicist has received funding from Google, DeepMind, Facebook, the Chinese tech giant Tencent and the Japanese IT firm Fujitsu, which developed the infrastructure involved in the Post Office's Horizon IT scandal.
Although Floridi is connected to several of the world’s most valuable tech companies, he is especially close to Google. In the mid-2010s the academic was described as the company’s “in-house philosopher”, with his role on the company’s “right to be forgotten” committee. When the Silicon Valley giant launched a short-lived ethics committee to oversee its technology development in 2019, Floridi was among those enlisted.
Last year, Floridi oversaw and co-authored a study that found some alternative and commercial search engines returned more misinformation about healthcare to users than Google. The authors of the pro-Google study didn’t disclose any financial interests, despite Floridi’s long-running relationship with the company.
In remarks shared via email, Floridi said: “All my research and advisory work is undertaken with full academic freedom and without influence from funders. I regularly make tough recommendations to technology companies, and I am critical of their actions, either directly, or when my input is sought by governments and regulators. Any external sources of funding are acknowledged in outputs such as academic papers, and external funding is used to help support the next generation of scholars.”
When asked why he hadn't disclosed his previous links to Google in the study, Floridi said: “No funding from Google, or indeed any other company or source, was used to support my work on this paper.”
The New Statesman revealed in 2019, two of Floridi’s colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) who had worked closely with Google's AI lab DeepMind had failed to disclose the funding in papers written on subjects similar to those the company had paid them to investigate.
One academic, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that it is “commonly said in defence of these practices that they only declare funding from industry when the research directly contributes to the work. However, ‘soft money’ centres like the Oxford Internet Institute apply heavy pressure on staff to seek external sources of funding, as they do not run teaching programmes sufficient to support their staff and estates costs. There is a risk that compartmentalising funding and works arising from it does not deal with the issue.”
Floridi’s ties to industry are not unique. The OII told the New Statesman that just 5 per cent of its funding came from industry in 2019-20, but of the 19 faculty staff who disclose their funding sources, 13 have received funding directly from industry and one receives funding from a research network entirely funded by Google. As a result, nearly 75 per cent of the institute’s surveyed academics have received funding from Big Tech.
The institute’s director Victoria Nash said “receiving support from a diverse range of sources is in line with government’s preferred funding model for higher education institutions”. She added: “External funding does not compromise the value or integrity of research output. Indeed many of our faculty and students have been the strongest critics of the practices of tech firms.”
The academic who spoke anonymously to the New Statesman added: “These firms aren’t trying to erase all criticism, they’re trying to amplify the criticism they prefer – the criticism they can structurally live with.”
A spokesperson denied that the OII is “dependent on any one source of funding”, adding that funding from postgraduate programmes had contributed at least a third of the OII’s income since 2018 and that “the majority” of research funding comes from research councils, charities and foundations.
A Google spokesperson said: “We’re proud of the support we provide to researchers at academic institutions, universities and research institutes. These researchers are undertaking world-leading work to examine the effects of technology on society. We maintain rigorous measures to ensure independence and are transparent about the researchers and organisations that we support.”
In 2014, the law professors Christopher Kuner and Paul De Hert founded the Brussels Privacy Hub (BPH), a primarily Google-funded entity of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) set up with “the aim of becoming the first European academic privacy research platform of global stature”.
The centre says it “uses its location in Brussels, the capital of Europe, to engage EU policymakers, data protection regulators, the private sector, and NGOs”. It hosts dozens of events a year, many of which feature high-profile figures from the European Commission, whose headquarters are two miles away.
Kuner and De Hert are co-directors of the BPH and now hold chair positions there. A 2019 VUB marketing brochure stated that Google was the official “partner” for Kuner’s position and a VUB spokesperson told the New Statesman that Google continues to fund the chair. A member of the Google EU policy team also currently sits on the BPH advisory board.
However, Kuner’s profile page and the page for the chair position he holds on the VUB’s website do not currently disclose support from Google. When asked about this, VUB told the New Statesman: “We are updating our policies to provide increased transparency, and will post more information on our web site shortly.”
Kuner told the New Statesman: “I have to disagree with what [the] brochure, which I have never seen before, says... The chair was not established by Google, it couldn’t have been, since my time at VUB predates any funding by Google.”
Kuner said the hub's expenses, including his position, were covered by funding from a range of sources not limited to industry. “That is why my web page and that of the chair do not mention any support from specific sources, which however is disclosed on the governance page cited above,” said Kuner, referring to this page.
Kuner did not deny that Google partly funds the position. While the Brussels Privacy Hub’s website acknowledges that “historically the largest private donor has been, and remains, Google”, the university did not respond to several requests for details of how much funding it had received from the tech giant. But a spokesperson did confirm that, like other industry partners, Google had provided at least €50,000 a year to help establish and maintain the position.
The academic who spoke anonymously to the New Statesman said: “All academics should be declaring their funding prominently.”
In addition to managing the BPH, Kuner works as a senior privacy counsel at the international law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, whose clients include Google and other major tech firms. In his more than 30 years practising data protection law at various firms, Kuner has represented a number of clients. He said he could not disclose which companies he had represented due to legal regulations, and that he had turned down offers of all personal work, including for tech companies.
The VUB marketing brochure on chairs with external partners says that chairs are “a way of supporting independent research at the VUB”, but also represent “a partnership”. “We involve the partners and the employees in guest lectures, workshops and symposiums,” reads the brochure. “The partner participates in the community debate and stimulates research and development in their name.” Kuner said he had not been consulted on the brochure and that it didn’t reflect the BPH’s governance policies.
In 2014 Kuner told IAPP, one of the funding bodies of BPH, that the hub would avoid any kind of “lobbying”. But the BPH was founded with an intention to influence policymaking. “We’d like to bridge that gap [between academic researchers and policymakers],” Kuner told IAPP, “and get outside of the formal process of doing studies… When I speak to people in the EU institutions, they say, ‘We get all these papers from companies and business associations. Why can’t they be more objective?’ So I feel like there’s a need for what we’re doing. I think if we can get the two worlds talking to each other, that would be a victory.”
Kuner told the New Statesman: “So far, we have never received allegations of any kind that our work has supported the Big Tech agenda. Many of our greatest achievements, such as working for the last three years with the International Committee of the Red Cross to produce two handbooks on data protection and humanitarian action, have nothing to do with Big Tech. Moreover, it has won the acclaim of human rights and legal scholars around the world.”
A brochure on the BPH at the time of its launch in 2014, which Kuner also said he was not familiar with, states that “while decisions will be made by the management board to ensure independence, sponsors will have input into the work of the [BPH]”. Its website currently reads that the BPH “is committed to full impartiality and independence in our research, as well as intellectual rigour and transparency”.
In February 2019 the Italian economist Emilio Calvano met a friend in Rome who worked as a competition lawyer at Google. Calvano wanted to set up a network of high-profile European economists who specialised in digital markets. His contact at Google had also been tasked with establishing an academic outreach programme. Together, they arranged for Google to provide four years of funding to a chair at Belgium’s UCLouvain that distributes the financial support to researchers.
Calvano said this arrangement protects the network’s independence, but refused to reveal how much Google had donated to UCLouvain to support the network, which now involves some of the continent’s most prominent economists. The research grants were worth €8,000 in 2019-20 and €16,000 in 2020-21. While Calvano said these were small sums in comparison with some of the public grants awarded to members of the group, his colleague Neil Gandal said they helped to top up academics’ low salaries and discourage them from seeking consulting work.
Calvano said Google does not interfere in the network’s research or influence who receives its funding. Gandal, an economics professor at Tel Aviv University who helps manage the network, said the company sometimes makes suggestions about policy discussions that researchers should investigate. “The only thing they’ve told us is that they want us to work on things that are relevant,” he told the New Statesman. “So from time to time, they’ll send us things that are being debated... [such as] the Digital Markets Act.”
This act has been drawn up to increase competition in digital markets and may pose a threat to Google’s business model.
Michael Veale, a lecturer in law at University College London, said that beyond influencing independent academics, there are other motives for firms such as Google to fund policy research. “By funding very pedantic academics in an area to investigate the nuances of economics online, you can heighten the amount of perceived uncertainty in things that are currently taken for granted in regulatory spheres,” he told the New Statesman.
Tommaso Valletti, a professor of economics at Imperial College Business School and the former chief competition economist of the European Commission, adds that the field of competition economics was stymied for years because there was no data available from Big Tech. Now that data is becoming available, he sees that Big Tech is increasingly interested in economists with “contrarian views”.
This appears to be the case within competition law as well. “I have noticed several common techniques used by academics who have been funded by Big Tech companies,” said Oles Andriychuk, a senior lecturer in law at Strathclyde University. “They discuss technicalities – very technical arguments which are not wrong, but they either slow down the process, or redirect the focus to issues which are less important, or which blur clarity.”
It is difficult to measure the impact of Big Tech on European academia, but Valletti adds that a possible outcome is to make research less about the details, and more about framing. “Influence is not just distorting the result in favour of [Big Tech],” he said, “but the kind of questions you ask yourself.”
Interactive visualisation by Georges Corbineau