Stanford, Google, Privacy, Money, Ethics: A Correction

I am quoted in this ProPublica article about “Stanford’s promise not to use Google money for privacy research.”

“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.” …

For instance, some of the non-privacy research at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society could be more related to privacy than they appear, Grimmelmann said.

Take copyright. A study on the increasing popularity of e-books could lead to the topic of e-book piracy, which could lead to the idea of publishers requiring readers to log in, a practice that could make users’ reading habits much easier to track – a clear-cut privacy issue.

“Some of the best copyright scholarship of recent decades … couldn’t have been carried out at the Stanford CIS under the terms of the grant you described to me,” Grimmelmann said. “So a commandment that ‘Thou Shalt Not Study X’ also interferes with the study of the rest of the alphabet.”

I have now had a chance to read the legal filing in which, according to the article, “Stanford University recently declared that it will not use money from Google to fund privacy research at its Center for Internet and Society.” I stand by my statements that such a pledge would be both unusual and problematic for academic integrity. But reading the underlying “promise” in context, I now do not believe Stanford made such a pledge.

Specifically, the filing is the Stanford CIS’s application for distribution of “cy pres” funds from a class-action settlement in a privacy case against Google. It is common in such cases for a court to give settlement funds to charitable or public-interest organizations when it would be difficult, impossible, or wasteful to give money directly to class members. The CIS applied for the funding to support privacy- research on mobile privacy, privacy-enhancing technologies, analyzing state privacy laws, and educational speakers on privacy.

The crucial passage occurs in the application’s discussion of a potential conflict of interest in using Google settlement funds when the CIS already receives funding from Google.

Per Stanford University policy, all donors to the Center agree to give their funds as unrestricted gifts, for which there is no contractual agreement and no promised products, results, or deliverables. Stanford has strict guidelines for maintaining its academic autonomy and research integrity. CIS complies with all these guidelines, including the Conflicts of Commitment and Interest section of the Stanford Research Policy Handbook < handbook/conflicts-commitment-and-interest>. Stanford policies provide explicit protection against sponsors who might seek to direct research outcomes or limit the publication of research.

Since 2013, Google funding is specifically designated not be used for CIS’s privacy work. CIS’s academic independence is illustrated by the following work by Privacy Director Aleecia M. McDonald and CIS Junior Affiliate Scholar Jonathan Mayer, which may not accord with Google’s corporate interests: [list of projects]

The phrase “specifically designated not be used” is ambiguous and unfortunate. But in a blog post, CIS Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick states, “[T]the designation to which we were referring is an internal SLS/CIS budgeting matter, not a policy change, and we very well may decide to ask the company for a gift for privacy research in the future. But in 2013, we had other funding sources for our consumer privacy work, and so we asked for, got, and designated Google money to be used for different projects.” This sounds like a standard academic grant: a request to support specific work, which takes the form of an unrestricted gift, and which is not accompanied by a promise that the work will not touch on a particular subject.

It would have been better to use different language in the filing. It would have been better still not to have applied for the cy pres funds. But I am not convinced that the CIS made a “promise” of the particularly problematic sort I understand was at stake: a pledge to prevent funds from being used in connection with research on a specific subject. I am sorry that I commented based on a reporter’s description of the filing rather than asking to see it myself.