So when Lynn issued a press release on June 27, 2017, congratulating the European commissioner for competition, Margrethe Vestager, for fining Google $2.7 billion, it could hardly have come as a surprise to anyone at New America. “Google’s market power is one of the most critical challenges for competition policymakers in the world today,” Lynn wrote, and he called on U.S. regulators “to build upon this important precedent, both in respect to Google and to other dominant platform monopolists including Amazon.”
Yet it was a surprise to New America’s most-prominent donor, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Google and Schmidt have given more than $21 million to New America in recent years, and Schmidt chaired the think tank’s board for eight years. So displeased was he by Lynn’s praise for the EU decision that, according to one of the current co-chairs of the board, Jonathan Soros, he asked to be removed as chairman emeritus. Days later, Lynn and his team of 10 full-time employees were out.
When a New York Times story about the ouster appeared online on August 30, Anne-Marie Slaughter immediately tweeted, “This story is false.” This was followed by another tweet a few hours later saying, “Let me be clearer in an era of fake news; facts are largely right but quotes are taken way out of context and interpretation is wrong.” She would later delete her first tweet.
Coming on the heels of the August firing of engineer James Damore for challenging what he described as an ideologically liberal “echo chamber” at the company, this episode has seen Google do the hardest thing possible in Washington—it’s brought left and right together to question the company’s power and generated a wave of anti-monopoly fervor.
The controversy also revives perennial questions about how think tanks operate: How do institutions that take tens of millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy individuals maintain their integrity? Can policymakers and the public trust the research that emerges? And in an age that demands transparency, in which missteps and scandals are instantly magnified thanks to social media, how can research institutions pursue both relevance and rectitude?
For two years, I received financial support—$50,000 a year—from New America to study and write about technology. After my fellowship ended in 2014, I was invited to continue my relationship with the foundation as an unpaid Future Tense fellow, part of a team that sponsored debates, panels, and book events on technology-related subjects in conjunction with Arizona State University and Slate. Everyone I know at New America is hardworking and intellectually curious.