The recent furor over a Google-funded think tank firing an anti-Google scholar has inspired Gizmodo journalist Kashmir Hill to tell a story about the time Google used its power to squash a story that was embarrassing to the company.
The incident occurred in 2011. Hill was a cub reporter at Forbes, where she covered technology and privacy. At the time, Google was actively promoting Google Plus and was sending representatives to media organizations to encourage them to add “+1” buttons to their sites. Hill was pulled into one of these meetings, where the Google representative suggested that Forbes would be penalized in Google search results if it didn’t add +1 buttons to the site.
Hill thought that seemed like a big story, so she contacted Google’s PR shop for confirmation. Google essentially confirmed the story, and so Hill ran with it under the headline: “Stick Google Plus Buttons On Your Pages, Or Your Search Traffic Suffers.”
Hill described what happened next:
Google never challenged the accuracy of the reporting. Instead, a Google spokesperson told me that I needed to unpublish the story because the meeting had been confidential, and the information discussed there had been subject to a non-disclosure agreement between Google and Forbes. (I had signed no such agreement, hadn’t been told the meeting was confidential, and had identified myself as a journalist.)
It escalated quickly from there. I was told by my higher-ups at Forbes that Google representatives called them saying that the article was problematic and had to come down. The implication was that it might have consequences for Forbes, a troubling possibility given how much traffic came through Google searches and Google News.
Hill says she didn’t want to take the story down, but she was a young reporter at a new job and her editors were pressuring her to pull the story. Ultimately, she took the story down, which she calls ”a decision I will always regret.”
“Google started out as a company dedicated to ensuring the best access to information possible,” Hill writes. “But as it’s grown into one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world, its priorities have changed.”
“Google said it never urged New America to fire Lynn and his team,” Hill adds. “But an entity as powerful as Google doesn’t have to issue ultimatums. It can just nudge organizations and get them to act as it wants.”
Update (September 1): Google responded in an email to Hill.
From our perspective, this was a disagreement over whether a meeting was held under NDA. As you know, you attended a Forbes business meeting with the Google sales team, which was presenting on the (then) new +1 button. It didn’t strike our sales team as unusual that someone from Forbes’ editorial was in the meeting because they’d often attend these types of meetings – Editorial is often involved in a publication’s social strategy.
Google’s e-mail doesn’t mention a key part of Hill’s story: that she confirmed the information with Google’s press shop. If I’d been in Hill’s shoes, I would have taken that as a signal that I was free to report the information.
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