Stanford Promises Not to Use Google Money for Privacy Research

Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society has long received funding from Google, but a filing shows the university recently pledged to only use the money for non-privacy research. Academics say such promises are problematic

This story was co-published by ProPublica and Mashable, and is republished here under the Creative Commons license.

Stanford University recently declared that it will not use money from Google to fund privacy research at its Center for Internet and Society, according to a legal filing made by the school.

"Since 2013, Google funding is specifically designated not [to] be used for CIS's privacy work," the university said in the court filing, found by ProPublica in documents filed in an unrelated lawsuit.

Stanford's Center for Internet and Society has long been generously funded by Google, but the center's privacy research has proved damaging to the search giant in the past two years. Two years ago a researcher at the center helped uncover Google privacy violations that led to the company paying a record $22.5 million fine.

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Stanford and Google both said that the change in funding was unrelated to the previous research. But some academics said that Stanford's promise not to use Google money for privacy research is problematic.

"It's such an etiquette breach, it tells you something is really sensitive here," said James Grimmelmann, a University of Maryland law professor who specializes in Internet law and online privacy. "It's fairly unusual and kind of glaring to have that kind of a condition."

Like most universities, Stanford has a policy that does not allow employees to "take money for academic research (or anything else) with strings attached. All donors to the Center agree to give their funds as unrestricted gifts."

Barring work on specific subjects is generally frowned upon, particularly because research that starts in one area can naturally lead to other topics. 

"To do research honorably, you have to follow where the data lead," said Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors. "You have to have the freedom to follow those leads." Asked if he would work under such conditions, Nelson was curt: "No."

Stanford and Google say the promise to avoid funding privacy issues is simply a result of Stanford's decision to seek Google funding for other projects.

Jennifer Granick, a director at the center, said the "designation" of Google money for non-privacy research that was referred to in the legal document did not amount to a "specific prohibition." The center, she said, chose not to request money from Google for its privacy work this year.

"The money they gave us ran out in 2013, and then we asked for, got, and used Google money for different projects, not because of a specific prohibition," Granick said. "We have other funding for our consumer privacy work."

 "When we ask for funding, we often tell the proposed funder what topic areas we plan to use any money we receive to work on. But the gift does not create a contractual obligation for us to spend the money on that subject," Granick said.

Granick said the designation of Google money for non-privacy research is an internal budgeting matter and that Stanford researchers are free to work on whatever they like.

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