Google has followed in the footsteps of the oil and tobacco industries by spending millions of dollars funding academic research supportive of its goals as part of a little known programme aimed at influencing politicians and public opinion, a watchdog's investigation has found.
Academic papers funded by the technology behemoth encompassed issues, including privacy, internet neutrality and copyright, deemed to be of critical importance to company profits.
Among other things, academics who received Google funding argued that the search engine and publisher did not use its market dominance improperly, stating that its collection of huge volumes of data from consumers was a fair trade-off in return for free use of its services.
Academics who were directly funded by Google are said to have received between $5,000 and $150,000, or up to $400,000 for their institutions.
American organisation the Campaign for Accountability (CfA), which revealed the practice, cited studies by academics at Oxford and Edinburgh universities, as well as institutions in the US, as being among those that received payment from Google either directly or indirectly.
A CfA report, released yesterday, stated: “While some individual papers offered criticisms of Google, the overwhelming majority tended to support the company's policy or legal positions.”
The group also concluded: “The Google-funded studies came from a wide variety of sources, and often blurred the line between academic research and paid advocacy by the company’s consultants.”
The CfA identified 329 research papers published since 2005 on public policy matters of interest to Google which had been in some way funded by the tech giant. Some appeared in peer-reviewed journals while others were published in less academically rigorous publications.
The pro-transparency group also stated that it appeared as if, in some cases, academics were sending their work to Google ahead of its publication seeking suggestions for changes, thereby potentially allowing the company edit what was then put forward as independent academic research.
In most cases the academics did not disclose their links to Google, meaning readers would often not have known about their potential conflict of interest.
In an article headlined “Google Academics Inc.”, the CfA stated: “The number of Google-funded studies tended to spike during moments when its business model came under threat from regulators – or when the company had opportunities to push for regulations on its competitors.
“For example: Google began to fund a barrage of academic studies on antitrust issues in 2011, a time when US antitrust enforcers began to scrutinise the company’s practices. Overall, more than a third (113) of the Google-funded studies in our dataset focused on antitrust issues—the largest single category.
“The largest number of studies were published in 2012, coinciding with major antitrust investigations into its conduct by the Federal Trade Commission and European regulators.”
Last month Google was slapped with a record fine of 2.42 billion euros (£2.1bn) by Europe's competition watchdog after breaching antitrust rules with its online shopping service.
Google was accused of abusing its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.
The company said it was considering launching an appeal against the European Commission once it had reviewed the decision.