Google’s political influence put under spotlight

The door between Google and the U.S. government isn’t just revolving, it’s spinning like a tilt-a-whirl. A new organization focused on revealing Google’s political influence has put out numbers showing exceptionally close ties between the tech giant and the powers-that-be.

“Over the past decade, Google has transformed itself from the dominant Internet search engine into a global business empire that touches on almost every facet of people’s lives — often without their knowledge or consent,” according to the  new Google Transparency Project. “It scans the content of people’s emails, tracks their activities online and their movements in the real world. It analyzes their search queries and behavior in ways many find troubling. At the same time, the company has assiduously courted Washington.”

During President Barack Obama’s tenure, 22 White House officials moved to Google, while 31 executives from Google or its primary outside firms joined the White House or federal advisory boards, the organization reported.  Google took on 18 former Pentagon officials and seven national security and intelligence officials, and three Google execs headed to the Pentagon. From the State Department, 18 officials went to Google, and five high-level Googlers went into senior posts at State, according to the report.

The Google Transparency Project is run by Campaign for Accountability, a government-oversight group. The organization said White House visitor logs show “the extraordinary access to the Obama White House enjoyed by Google, its top executives and employees.” Employees of Google and “associated entities” made 427 visits to the White House between January 2009 and November 2015, according to the report. “Senior Google executives have met at least 21 times with President Obama in small, intimate meetings. Senior company executives also met at least 20 times with President Obama’s key political and economic advisers.”

The Google Transparency Project claimed that it has obtained via freedom-of-information requests to the federal government “emails between Google representatives and top-ranking government officials, millions of dollars in government contracts, exchanges about sponsored research, meeting records, and other evidence that Google wields enormous influence over the nation’s public policy.” The group plans to make public these documents and said it will invite readers to dig through them “for evidence of Google’s influence on public life.”

Google declined to comment on the Google Transparency Project. But in a blog post last year after a Wall Street Journal article raised questions about meetings between Google and government while Google was under antitrust investigation, the tech firm provided a window into its reasons for getting close to government. Google officials hadn’t talked to government officials about the antitrust investigation, the blog post said, however “we seem to have discussed everything but, including patent reform, STEM education, self-driving cars, mental health, advertising, Internet censorship, smart contact lenses, civic innovation, R&D, cloud computing, trade and investment, cyber security, energy efficiency and our workplace benefit policies.”

Naturally, one wants to know who’s funding the Campaign for Accountability (CfA), and clearly, given its name and raison d’etre — exposing “decisions made behind the doors of corporate boardrooms, government offices, and shadowy nonprofit groups” — the organization would be expected to happily share that information. Nope.

“CfA does not disclose its donors,” said the non-profit group’s deputy director Daniel Stevens. “We protect the anonymity of our donors who support our work.”


Photo: A man walks past a building on the Google campus in Mountain View. (AP/Jeff Chiu)


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