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.The Humboldt Institute is seeking to diversify its funding sources, but still receives millions from GoogleAnnual funding to the Humboldt Institute by Google and other third-party institutions
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.
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.OII digital ethics director Luciano Floridi is one of Europe’s most influential tech policy expertsFunding sources, and advisory positions declared by Luciano Floridi in public integrity statements
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.
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.
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.”