PrivacyCon Update: More Disclosure of Google Funding

Last year, the Google Transparency Project examined the speakers presenting research at PrivacyCon, a conference organized by the Federal Trade Commission. More than half of the presenters had been funded in some capacity by Google, yet only two disclosed the funding in their papers.

On January 12, researchers will again gather for the second PrivacyCon. A new examination shows at least 40 percent of conference speakers have received funding from Google, either directly or through their employers. This time, however, more than half disclosed their Google funding to conference attendees. 

In all, seven out of the 12 disclosed their funding, many of them directly in the biographies they submitted to the FTC. Last year, just two disclosed their funding.

The shift is telling, because many academics had previously denied that they had any obligation to disclose their funding from Google. When The Intercept asked researchers about GTP’s 2016 report, many academics said Google funding — sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — was irrelevant unless the money specifically supported the particular paper being presented. The Intercept wrote:

"This line of reasoning came up again and again as I spoke to privacy-oriented researchers and academics — that papers actually should not mention funding directed to the researcher for other projects, even when such disclosure could bear on a conflict of interest, and that, for better or for worse, this deeply narrow standard of disclosure is just the way it is. And besides, it’s not as if researchers who enjoy cash from Google are necessarily handing favors back, right?"

Some still did not clearly disclose their Google funding. James Cooper, for example, merely linked to a George Mason University list of donors featuring Google among a host of other company names. But several media investigations from the Washington Post and Salon have found that GMU has, among other things, received at least $762,000 from Google, taken suggestions from the company on who should participate in its conferences, and written academic papers backing its policy positions.

Lorrie Cranor, the FTC’s chief technologist, also failed to disclose her Google funding on the PrivacyCon event page. Cranor, who is scheduled to participate on a panel of five other panelists at this week’s PrivacyCon, has benefited from nearly $850,000 in funding from Google—including nearly $350,000 in personal research awards and $400,000 shared with two other Carnegie Mellon researchers.

Notably, four of the six panelists on the consumer privacy panel also have received Google funding, but only two disclosed the funding on the FTC’s PrivacyCon event page. Moreover, the FTC’s PrivacyCon includes several new Google-funded academics who did not participate in last year’s conference.

Many of the privacy researchers funded by Google are respected in their field, and are conducting important work of critical importance to the public. The public must have confidence in their findings, and judge for themselves whether they may have been influenced, even unconsciously, by the funding they received from Google or any other company for which privacy regulation is an existential issue.

If the Environmental Protection Agency held a conference on climate change and half the academics had been funded by Exxon, the public would want to know. Similarly, the FTC must ensure that presenters at its conferences are transparent when they have received funding from companies with a major financial stake in the outcome of the privacy rules it oversees.