Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

My ‘Not a Shadowy Nonprofit Group’ T-Shirt Has People Asking Questions Already Answered by My Shirt

Several Amazon suppliers and marketplace sellers are allegedly using forced Uyghur labour, along with seven of Apple’s suppliers. Instagram is reportedly a platform for drug dealers selling to children. Facebook generates pages for white supremacist groups. Ads powered by Google appeared beside conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

You have probably seen some of these stories and others like them. Something they all have in common is their source: the Tech Transparency Project, or TTP. The TTP began life in April 2016 as the Google Transparency Project, with a goal of tracking Google’s close relationship with U.S. lawmakers. Using a mix of public records and FOIA requests, it established Google’s connections to media organizations, lobbyists, and academics. Its techniques have sometimes elicited controversy, like inaccuracies in its database of allegedly Google-funded researchers, but it has been rewarded with enthusiastic media coverage for every year it has operated.

In March 2020, the initiative was rebranded the Tech Transparency Project in an effort to investigate a broader set of major consumer technology companies. In addition to Google and sub-brands like YouTube, TTP has released several reports documenting the ills of Amazon, Apple, Meta, and the burgeoning cryptocurrency industry. As before, these publications typically involve a mix of open records, public document requests, and experiments. For example, its researchers were able to find drugs for sale through Instagram in just a couple of taps, even though Instagram shows no results for common drug search terms. Even though the TTP published its investigation in early December, it took little time for me to find apparent drug dealers now, months later, using the same method.

Exposing the drug marketplace hiding inside a photo platform or the use of forced labour by suppliers is a worthwhile effort. I applaud a more critical look at big businesses, especially those that are somehow trusted to police themselves, and there is no bigger industry today than tech. Besides, critically underfunded public institutions depend on third-party notifications like these to investigate malpractice.

Still, the volume of investigations produced by the TTP and the project’s focus got me wondering who was funding this operation. The answer to that question is less transparent than the initiative’s name would suggest.

The TTP’s “About” page lists several funders today: groups like the Bohemian Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Omidyar Network, and Open Society Foundations; and individuals including David Magerman, formerly of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. The TTP says it “does not” receive donations from corporations.

But it seems this has not always been the case. In 2016, when it was still the Google Transparency Project, Jeff John Roberts of Fortune reported that Oracle was “one of many” donors.1 It is unclear when Oracle’s donations were received — I tried and failed to find out. But if Oracle was funding it from around its inception, that would be newsworthy — the project was launched just a couple of weeks before arguments began in Oracle’s second attempt at suing Google for intellectual property infringement. It would be nice for Oracle if Google — widely seen as a friendly and personable kind of corporate giant, especially in early 2016 — faced some negative publicity from an independent organization.

The press — tech and mainstream — does not cover Oracle with the fervour of Apple or Google or Meta, but it is a large company nevertheless. Its market capitalization hovers around the $200 billion mark. That is similar to Adobe and Salesforce, and greater valuation than all major American airlines combined plus Boeing. Also, Oracle CTO and executive chairman Larry Ellison is, as of writing, number eight on the Forbes live billionaire ranking, landing seven spots ahead of Mark Zuckerberg. What I am saying is that Oracle certainly qualifies as a big company, and its executives are rich.

In August 2016, Silicon Beat reported that the Google Transparency Project was also funded in large part by the New Venture Fund. One of its primary backers was — and remains — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The article notes that it is very possible the Gates Foundation was unaware their money was going to help show Google’s influence in policymaking circles, given how buried the trail is between their donation and the final product. It seems unlikely to me that the Gates Foundation bankrolled the New Venture Fund specifically to endorse projects like those run by the CFA; that is too many steps removed.

A striking quality of the TTP is how it has narrowed its focus. Looking at the businesses the TTP does not cover seems as intriguing as those it does. For example, Oracle is not as big as the four companies the TTP targets for its investigations, but it is certainly influential among policymakers. According to expenditure data tracked by Open Secrets, Oracle spends more on lobbying than any other electronics company,2 and it has a PAC. Does it fund researchers? Should it be a part of the TTP’s searchable database “big tech” funding?

The TTP has not investigated Microsoft either, even though its market cap is higher than that of Amazon, Google, or Meta. Microsoft’s list of top suppliers for 2021 includes Avary Holding and Luxshare, both of which have been tied to forced labour in Xinjiang. The latter was connected by TTP to Amazon and Apple without recognizing Microsoft’s use of the same supplier.

It is unfair to assume bad faith motivations for these omissions. The TTP likely wants to focus on what it sees as the biggest offenders, and it may not have the capacity to cover every large tech company in detail. I would buy that rationale. It is not like it is looking into every company except Oracle and Microsoft — it also has not published research on Tencent, TikTok, or Twitter, even though all three of those companies are influential today.

But the selection of its ire still seems inconsistent, at the very least. It explores malfeasance by the biggest tech companies in the world, except Microsoft, the second most valuable tech company. It is worried about lobbying, except when it comes to boring companies or adjacent industries like telecom. It says it does not accept corporate donations, but it has not acknowledged receiving funding from Oracle in the past.

One way to know for certain the TTP is not playing favours behind the scenes is if it released its finances in more detail. There is nothing prohibiting it from doing so. But it is hard to trace any source of its funding outside of the handful of funders on its “About” page. One reason is because it is not an independent organization — it is an initiative of the Campaign for Accountability, a “nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization”, according to the “Mission” page on its website. In addition to running the TTP, the Campaign for Accountability, or CFA, advocates for investigations into ethical violations by U.S. state and federal lawmakers, most often Republican officials. It is not a politically neutral organization, but it does not pretend to be, and its lean is not relevant to the purposes of this article. The CFA was founded about a year before it launched the Google Transparency Project.

The CFA’s “Mission” page also says “millions of Americans’ lives are negatively impacted by […] shadowy nonprofit groups”. Not a single funder or donor is listed on the CFA’s website.

That made me curious. There is no reason for me to assume ill intent, but it is odd to see an initiative advocating for transparency by tech companies without being similarly transparent, run by an organization decrying “shadowy nonprofit groups” that refuses to disclose its biggest donors. Non-profits are not obligated to publicize sources of significant funding, but the CFA could do so if it wanted to. I thought its 2020 fiscal year would be a good place to start because that is when the CFA launched its Tech Transparency Project expansion.

That year is also significant because the CFA doubled its donor revenue. In 2019, it received $1,227,610, but it jumped to $2,500,278 in 2020. Surely one reason for the significant increase in fundraising is because 2020 was an election year. The CFA is much more than the TTP. It advocates for progressive causes, including voting rights, so an election year against that fucking guy would likely encourage more people and organizations who share similar values to donate. Keep in mind that the funds here have been used on many of the organization’s projects, and some donations may have nothing to do with the TTP.

The sole donation acknowledged by the CFA on its tax return is $62,500 worth of office space from the Open Markets Institute, but no donors are listed for the remaining $2,545,348 million it collected that year. In a filing in Hawaii (PDF), it says about 75% of its funding in 2020 came from “five donors that each account[ed] for at least 10% of the annual revenue” — the CFA brought in a little over $2.6 million in total revenue, meaning these donors contributed at least $260,000 apiece.

I thought I would try to figure out who those five major donors were. Here is where things get a bit frustrating. In the U.S., a tax-exempt charitable organization has to disclose when it grants money to someone else, so even though the CFA does not publicize its incoming sources of funding, anyone can find organizations that gave it money. However, corporations and individuals generally do not need to disclose their charitable contributions. I am therefore limited to reviewing contributions by funds and charities.

The first was easy enough to find: $400,000 came from the New Venture Fund. The TTP acknowledged the support on a contemporaneous version of its “About” page, and the fund disclosed it on its 990 form (PDF).

Another $399,312 was donated in 2020 by the Susan Thomas Buffett Foundation, one of Warren Buffett’s philanthropic vehicles. Those appear to be two of the five significant donors CFA was dependent on in 2020; their combined contributions reflect about 30% of CFA’s revenue for the year.

To satisfy the disclosure in the filing from Hawaii, I still needed to find over a million dollars’ worth of donations from three donors. This is where I began to struggle. One of the organizations that got credited on the “About” page in 2020 is the Open Society Foundations, but its $100,000 donation that year does not meet the 10% revenue cutoff.

Another regular donor revealed in my search of ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer is the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees. A 2020 copy of its 990-PF is not yet available, but previous donations indicate it would likely not meet the criteria: it reported giving $90,000 in 2017, $50,000 in 2018, and $75,000 in 2019.

One possibility might be Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund which, in fiscal year 2020, donated $400,300 to the CFA. But its 2020 fiscal year ended June 2020, so I am not sure whether the CFA booked this amount in 2020 or 2019, and it did not file its 990 until the end of May 2021, so it seems we could be waiting a few months to know if it continued that funding.

Luckily, the CFA’s 2019 financials are simpler. It reported receiving $1,227,610 grants and donations that year, of which:

  • $614,154 came from the Susan Thomas Buffett Foundation

  • $510,000 came from the New Venture Fund

  • and $75,000 came from American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

That is a total of $1,199,154 in donations from just these three entities, leaving only $28,456 unaccounted for.

It seems that Fidelity Charitable must be another of the remaining five significant donors in 2020. But that leaves two I cannot find, and it is where I have hit a wall. It seems plausible to me that any of David Magerman, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, or the Bohemian Foundation may be our missing donors, but none of them have responded to my emails. I know I am not the New York Times or anything, but an acknowledgement would be nice. It is also possible the two remaining significant donors are corporations or individuals I have not considered. The CFA did not respond to requests for comment, but I am happy to update this post if it ever does.

I have been able to account for half the contributions received by the Campaign for Accountability in 2020, including three of its five biggest funders. I have no idea if the remaining two major donors are connected to tech companies seeding astroturf, but somehow I doubt it. I am a steadfast believer in Hanlon’s Razor and, until there is an indication of malfeasance, I am okay with assuming some philanthropists are happy to give the organization at least $260,000 apiece because they believe in its mission and not because they want to sway it.

Still, it is strange that the CFA does not list its funders. Two of its biggest have never been listed by the TTP as supporters, likely meaning their CFA donations went elsewhere. That is fine, but I wish we knew more. I wish this whole organization was a little more transparent and accountable.

This is all a bit rich coming from the CFA, which has previously raised the spectre of a conflict of interest for other organizations. For example, a 2017 report about the Energy and Policy Institute raised some familiar concerns:

[…] One of EPI’s top goals is to reveal the hidden influence of fossil fuel and utility companies. At the same time, however, EPI is opaque about its own funders.


Despite its opaque background, the media regularly covers EPI’s reports and interviews its employees without questioning the group’s affiliations. On May 9, 2017, EPI released a report claiming that “utility ratepayers are forced to fund the Edison Electric Institute and other political organizations.” On June 3, 2017, The New York Times mentioned the report in an article about wind energy and simply characterized EPI as an organization “which supports renewables.”

Contrary to the image it presents, the EPI may not be a standalone non-profit; a tax filing from Eric Schmidt’s foundation suggests it is the responsibility of the Sustainable Markets Foundation, which is a non-profit. I could not find a second source for this information but, if it is true, it sure has echoes of the CFA’s ownership of TTP: opacity in its funding, and unquestioning media citations. To its credit, one key difference is that the CFA does not hide its responsibility for the TTP.

Then there was the time the CFA profiled Engine, which presented itself as a lobbying group for startup tech companies, but which appeared to quietly advance Google’s interests. A followup report raised possible impropriety when Engine filed an amicus brief arguing for Google’s side in Oracle v. Google. But nowhere in the article does CFA mention its Google Transparency Project reportedly received funding from Oracle. Even though this is not a courtroom, surely this would be a fine time to acknowledge what appears to be a conflict of interest.

Maybe this seems to you like I spent a lot of time digging into an organization that is merely inconsistent in its investigations — not underhanded and not a front organization, just not applying the same scrutiny across the board. But the TTP itself has raised questions in its findings about inconsistent behaviour that warrants further inquiry. Several days into writing this piece, the TTP published an investigation into Apple’s fervent defence of its trademark, even raising objections against tiny businesses that nobody would confuse with the tech company. But, the TTP says, Apple’s choice of what to fight and what to let slide seems “arbitrary”, thus completing the transformation of intellectual property law into a branch of App Review.

Fine, I added that last part, but the TTP did call it “arbitrary”.

For what seems like the hundredth time, I will stress I have not seen evidence of impropriety by the Campaign for Accountability or the Tech Transparency Project. It does not appear to be anything like a front for other companies trying to take these big ones down a peg. But I do question the CFA’s decision to keep hidden its major supporters while advocating for policies in a way that looks inconsistent. This could all be cleared up by the CFA. I do not think many people would be surprised to see the funders I found; they each donate to hundreds or thousands of recipients. When I used MacOS’ Preview application to search Fidelity Charitable’s tax return, my admittedly old MacBook Air seized up and sounded like it was turning into a hovercraft — the PDF file has thousands of pages’ worth of grant recipients. These charities are massive.

The Campaign for Accountability is not a big lobbying or public interest organization, and its Tech Transparency Project is playing an impressively conspicuous role in media coverage. Some of its work is very good. But its parent organization should be less shy about its donors so it is obvious it is backed without the expectation of favour, and its reports are produced without any conflicts of interest.

Apologies or thanks to Mike Ginn for the headline inspiration. Also, the Nonprofit Explorer from ProPublica is a wildly useful resource marred only by the number of times it pestered me to sign up for the organization’s newsletter.

  1. Oracle now funds the conservative-leaning Internet Accountability Project↩︎

  2. Amazon, Google — well, Alphabet — and Meta are listed by Open Secrets as internet companies. Amazon and Meta outspend Oracle, but not Google, the original target of the TTP’s investigations. ↩︎