A total of 19 internet law scholars signed on to a January amicus brief in Gonzalez v. Google, arguing in favor of upholding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal statute at the heart of the case shielding companies like Google from liability for content posted by users. The case is widely viewed as one that could reshape content moderation and speech online.
A Washington Examiner investigation has found that several of the same legal scholars who signed on to the brief scored Google research funding, fellowships, and consulting gigs, while also maintaining other ties to the tech giant.
One person who signed the brief was Anupam Chander, a Georgetown University Law professor. Chander received funding from Google for 10 separate research papers between 2010 and 2016, according to the Tech Transparency Project, which “seeks to hold large technology companies accountable” and is a project of the Campaign for Accountability, a watchdog group. Scholars can receive around $200,000 from Google for papers, one source told the American Prospect in July 2022.
From 2012 to 2014, Chander also received Google Faculty Research Awards through a program running until 2019 that “aimed to recognize and support world-class faculty pursuing cutting-edge research in areas of mutual interest,” according to a Google database. He’s also been reimbursed for travel between 2011 and 2015 by Google for research trips in Hungary, South Korea, Hong Kong, and India, according to Chander’s 2011 “Googling Freedom” paper and the American Prospect.
“My participation in this brief was based only on my academic research in the area and my concerns about ensuring access to internet platforms for diverse voices,” Chander told the Washington Examiner. “The prior research funding from Google — which went to pay for a public interest fellow — did not influence my decision to participate in this brief.”
Another internet law scholar who signed the brief with Chander is Mailyn Fidler, a professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law.
Fidler has consulted for Google in the past, including in 2014 when she developed reports on European policy with regard to sex offender and criminal records access, according to her LinkedIn profile. Fidler also developed reports that year for Google on cloud computing to assist the company’s policy advocacy efforts and, in 2013, consulted for the tech giant in connection to Google Glass, autonomous cars, and other issues.
In 2019, before finishing up her degree at Yale Law School, Fidler worked as a summer associate at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. She worked on cases at the firm on behalf of Google and provided the company “extensive research and drafting support” for Section 230 defense, according to a copy of her resume obtained by the Washington Examiner.
Fidler did not reply to a request for comment.
Jane Bambauer, a law professor at the University of Arizona, also signed the internet law scholars brief. During the years 2012, 2014, and 2017, Bambauer was a Google fellow at the Privacy Law Salon in Miami, Florida, according to a copy of her resume. The exclusive salon consists of two annual “closed-door” gatherings for chief product officers, consultants, and academics to discuss privacy and data security, according to its website.
Google has provided at least $1.86 million since 2011 to George Mason Law School programs, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Law and Economics Center, according to the Tech Transparency Project. The funds were used amid the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust investigation into Google between 2011 and 2013 to support university efforts arguing the tech giant did not act anti-competitively, the project said in a March 2021 report.
“When my positions dovetail with the interests of a company, it is for the reasons I say in my arguments,” Bambauer told the Washington Examiner. “I have never taken money or anything of value directly from Google. The organizers of the Privacy Law Salon invited me to attend without cost (in other words, with admissions fees waived and with the cost of travel covered), but the invitation came with the obligation to moderate several sessions and be on call as a resident academic.”
The ties have been slammed by watchdog groups and advocates involved in the case.
“The credibility of these individuals once they are beneficiaries of Google’s largess is less than that it would be otherwise,” Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative higher education advocacy group, told the Washington Examiner. “They may well believe what they’re saying, but their ability to testify publicly to the righteousness of Google’s cause is the matter of some doubt.”
“What a surprise!” Michael Chamberlain, director of the ethics watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust, told the Washington Examiner. “Some academics who have been rewarded by Google over the years may be attempting to sway the court to the benefit of Google. We hope that their input will be based upon policy analysis and not on a desire to keep the Google gravy train for academics running.”
Section 230 was enacted in 1996 and has spawned a lightning rod debate topic in Washington, as Big Tech lobbyists argue weakening it could open companies up to costly litigation and result in more content moderation as social media platforms fear further liability. Opponents of Section 230, such as Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), say courts have long ignored differences between publisher liability and distributor liability, claiming Google should be classified as a distributor.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Gonzalez v. Google on Feb. 21. A ruling for the case is expected in June.