For years, the tech giants and organizations they fund have pushed op-eds from small business owners, think tanks, and academics into US newspapers without disclosing their involvement.
The op-eds, which advance the tech giants’ policy positions, make it seem like they have more public support than they actually do — and that’s exactly the point. Their aim is to persuade lawmakers and regulators that the people they purportedly hurt prefer the status quo. And perhaps some do. But when no one knows you’re behind an article, it’s easier to press the case.
“It’s common practice,” one former Google communications professional told Big Technology. “The way democracy is supposed to work is you pay less heed to a corporation. But a local small business that has ten employees? That goes much further.”
In the policy world, planting op-eds from ‘independent’ third parties is so common it has a name: “Grasstops,” a word derived from grassroots. Grasstops advocacy is not limited to the tech giants, but these companies and their allies are especially adept at using the practice to fight off regulation. As antitrust inquiries against them build in the US, it’s worth reading op-eds supporting their positions with healthy skepticism.
“It was always baffling to me that this was so natural,” the ex-Googler said. “By 2012, I couldn't open an op-ed page without being like — Okay, who's actually behind that?”
A second tech giant communications pro described the process: “They're always written by the company, edited by whomever they're affixing the name to, and sent back and forth,” the person said. “Eventually they get it to where they want, and the company places the article.”
The ex-Googler said they provided substantial guidance on a 2015 Wall Street Journal article headlined “Some Things Should Not Be ‘Forgotten,’” which advocated against the ‘right to be forgotten,’ a policy that allows people to force search engines to remove certain personal links. “It was a successful op-ed,” the ex-Googler said. The Journal article does not mention Google’s involvement. Its author, Jason Wright, declined to comment.
More recently, a Phoenix-based boot maker named David Espinoza blasted Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich for his antitrust investigation into Google via the Arizona Capitol Times. Espinoza’s opinion piece contains his byline, but the Connected Commerce Council (3C) — a small business trade organization that’s accepted funding from Google, Amazon, and Facebook — wrote it and placed it. The Washington Post first reported the connection. The Arizona Capitol Times declined an interview request.
“When they approached me, I had no idea what they were talking about or why they wanted to see me,” Espinoza told Big Technology. “I don’t think they did anything wrong, but maybe it was a little bit deceptive.”
Jake Ward, president of 3C, told Big Technology his organization would no longer submit op-eds without disclosing its members’ association with the group. “It was an oversight that needed to be fixed,” Ward said. “It’s been fixed.”
The Kansas City Star Mystery
Sometimes, multiple opaque layers can obscure the entities backing an op-ed. An extremely strange example might be a Kansas City Star op-ed that ran earlier this month (buckle up for this one). Kimberly Vincent, a local vegan bakery owner, wrote a July 5 op-ed in the KC Star supporting CDA Section 230. This law gives internet services like Facebook and Google broad immunity for what’s posted on their sites. Conservative politicians, in an attempt to intimidate these platforms into keeping their hands off right-wing content, have threatened to amend it.
Vincent, in her op-ed, pushed back on these Republican lawmakers. “For some elected officials — like our own Sen. Josh Hawley, who has introduced legislation to amend Section 230 — these internet laws are about politics,” she said. “But for me, this is about my business.”
Vincent told Big Technology she did not work with an outside group on the op-ed. 3C’s Jake Ward said that a consultancy his organization sometimes works with, Alaris Strategies, did help Vincent on the op-ed, though not in its work for 3C. After further inquiry from Big Technology, Alaris partner Chris Grimm called to talk. “The Kansas City op-ed you asked about, we did not pitch for 3C, we pitched for another client,” he said.
Asked to name the client, Grimm declined. “We don't disclose our clients,” he said.
Vincent did not respond to further inquiries. The Kansas City Star did not respond to multiple emails. Senator Hawley’s office did not respond. Facebook, Google, and Twitter all said they do not work with Alaris. The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a trade group that lists Google, Facebook, and Amazon among its members, did not respond to a request for comment.
So, who knows who’s behind that KC Star article. If anyone is at all. And that’s the crux of the problem. Unlike traditional lobbying, companies working to wield influence on politicians through op-eds are not required to disclose they’re involved, ensuring the practice will continue.
“There's no existing regulation,” another person who’s worked on these campaigns inside the tech giants said. “It's entirely outside of lobbying disclosures. So if they disclosed it, it would seem like excessive disclosure. It's not even in the realm of what's being required.”
Until lawmakers require disclosure, it will fall on news publishers to press for it themselves, and the tech giants and their associated industry groups may also want to act with integrity here too.
“News publishers should be disciplined in asking where financial backing, or communications backing came from, and disclosing that,” David Chavern, the head of the News Media Alliance, an industry group that is itself seeking an antitrust exemption so its members can negotiate together against the tech giants, told Big Technology. “It doesn’t mean you don’t run it. it means you disclose to the public exactly what’s going on.”
For longtime political operatives, this story may seem like a rundown of a common practice. But for the general public, there’s reason to believe it’s surprising. Even the small business owners involved, like Espinoza, can be confused by how it works. So it’s time to stop looking at this as simply “part of the business” and to take some real steps to end the deception.
Once Twitter admitted its employees helped facilitate yesterday’s A-List user hack, it felt like a step into a recurring nightmare. The FBI previously accused Twitter employees of accessing Saudi dissidents’ private data and passing it along to people connected with the Saudi Royal Family. Now, Twitter’s employees were involved again.
For Twitter, another inside job is not surprising. But this episode makes you wonder how much Twitter actually locked down its internal systems after the Saudi incident. Whatever the answer, it was not enough.
Some employees must always have access to a company’s innermost areas, but there’s no excuse for not building safeguards to detect this abuse. Imagine what else could’ve happened in a slightly darker scenario. Now, all manner of questions about Twitter’s security practices will come to the fore: Can you trust Twitter to protect your messages? (I’m glad I’ve moved mostly to Signal.) Also, will Twitter’s industry-leading commitment to remote work last?
It appears this was simply a case of hackers playing a joke and walking away with some cash. Yet we’re all crossing our fingers and hoping there’s nothing more nefarious at play. If Twitter’s direct message database leaked, for instance, it would be an instant global scandal. This episode may simply be a case of a few people getting bored and deciding on some reckless fun. Anything more, and we could be looking at one of the most serious stories of 2020.
See you next Thursday.
Are the Tech Giants really getting bigger? (Bradley Tusk podcast)
Two entrepreneurs and a journalist walk into a podcast (Talk Therapy podcast)
Always Day One (My book)