What happens when you upset Google

The repercussions of upsetting the web’s gatekeeper can be severe

Google may have started life preaching "don't be evil", but that platitude doesn't seem to extend to companies that upset the search firm. Even as Google fights a 2.7 billion fine for anti-competitive practices in Europe, stories are emerging that portray the company as vindictive, vengeful and eager to buy opinions that match its ambitions.

Small rivals claim to have been crushed by Google's tactics, others have seen their AdSense accounts frozen after speaking out against Google, while the huge funding the company gives to academia and think tanks have led to allegations that it's suppressing negative research or opinion. Google, meanwhile, protests its innocence.

"When you have more money than God, you can fund everyone that might be critical of you, and that seems to be Google's strategy," said Sarah Miller, director of advocacy at the newly independent Open Markets Institute (OMI), a group of journalists, researchers, lawyers and advocates aiming to "expose and reverse the stranglehold that corporate monopolies have on our country [the USA]".

The OMI has first-hand experience of Google's wrath following a row that saw it cut adrift from the New America Foundation think tank where it was an in-house advocacy programme after angering the search firm.

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Google and former CEO Eric Schmidt are among New America's biggest funders, so when Open Markets director Barry Lynn wrote a press release praising the EU for the level of Google's fine, the company allegedly went postal. "Barry was told that New America had received an angry phone call, which was confirmed internally in a letter to staff," said Miller. "Also, that he [Schmidt] was pulling out his money from the entire institution as a result of his pique of anger."

In the fallout, not only was Lynn effectively fired (although reports vary on that), but the entire Open Markets team left the New America Foundation and set up an independent body without outside corporate funding.

"We went public because the story perfectly reflected the concerns that we have about monopoly power and democracy and freedom of speech in a way that no article we'd written could have done," said Miller. "It started an important debate in Washington about the role these relatively new, incredibly powerful companies have and how tech firms are engaging in philanthropy what are the ethics around that philanthropy and is this lobbying by another name?"

Keep your enemies close

Open Markets' story is one of several coming to light and comes at a time when critics have highlighted the number of research programmes funded by Google. Earlier this year, the Google Transparency Project (which is part of the Campaign for Accountability) identified 330 research papers published between 2005 and 2017 on public policy matters of interest to Google that were in some way funded by the company.

"The bigger problem is self-censorship," said Miller. "Nobody wants to jeopardise their job or their relationship with their boss or company by taking on a company that funds them it's so incredibly pervasive."An institution will promote a policy that's in line with corporate donors and not disclose that, or an organisation will implicitly discourage research in a certain direction because it doesn't align with a donor's interests."

Google, for its part, has denied leaning on the New America Foundation and says researchers taking its funding can speak openly. "We support hundreds of organisations that promote a free and open internet, greater access to information, and increased opportunity," the company explained in a statement sent to PC Pro. "We don't agree with every group 100% of the time, and while we sometimes respectfully disagree, we respect each group's independence, personnel decisions, and policy perspectives."

One rule for them...

Small companies that have taken on Google have also claimed to have suffered retribution. Several of these firms were among a group that initiated the European Union complaints against Google over the way it demoted them in search rankings. Google is still fighting the fine over those charges, but other tech companies believe they have been targeted by the search giant in more subtle ways.

Jon von Tetzchner co-founded the Opera browser and has since gone on to develop Vivaldi, another browser that uses the same rendering engine as Google's Chrome.

He claims to have had several disputes with Google over browser integration with tools such as Google Docs. However, Google really upped the ante when von Tetzchner wrote a blog criticising the amount of personal data that the company was collecting.

"If you look at the timing (just after I'd written about the data collection scale) it spoke volumes," he told PC Pro. "Our Google AdWords campaigns were suspended without warning. This was the second time that I have encountered this situation, but this time they closed it and there was no indication for it and no warning.

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"When it closed our account just after our articles and struggled to give us reasons why and then those reasons didn't make sense you draw certain conclusions."

Google flatly denies Vivaldi's account was closed because of what von Tetzchner wrote, claiming instead that the suspension was due to unclear installation and removal rules for the Vivaldi browser. "We certainly don't suspend anyone from AdWords because they criticise us," the company said in a statement.

"We do take action against sites that contravene our guidelines and policies about software downloads, which are there to ensure that our users know exactly what they're downloading and that the installation process is safe and easy to understand. And we follow those same guidelines and policies for our own products."

Vivaldi claims that argument is a smokescreen, and that Google doesn't even abide by its own rules. "To get our accounts reinstated Google wanted us to have these buttons showing how to uninstall, what information you give when you install the browser, when you see the EULA," said von Tetzchner.

"It was a requirement to be reinstated, but made no sense," he said. "If you go to Google and look at the site, you don't see those buttons. If you download Adobe Flash it downloads Chrome without asking permission."He experienced similar behaviour from Google during his time at Opera. "When Google started to work closely with Mozilla we saw Google services stop working on Opera or they told people to switch browsers we're still in that situation that when we have to access Google services and sites using Vivaldi we have to change how we identify ourselves.

"For us it's important for Google to realise that they may be able to step on a small company but we have one thing we can actually speak out it's all we can do," he added. "At Opera we never spoke out about Google and the reason for that was that we had a business deal with Google and there was always a feeling that it would be a very risky proposition to go into that kind of discussion online."

Shivaun Raff, CEO of the Foundem price comparison site that led the European action against Google, agrees that Google has the power to silence critics. "We accept that many of the academics and other professionals within Google's extensive network of influencers sincerely believe that their pro-Google opinions are their own and are not influenced by their (or their institution's) financial ties to Google," she said. "However, it is noteworthy how often these opinions are underpinned by an eerily consistent misrepresentation of the basic facts."

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