The Obama Administration is quickly becoming a battleground between lawmakers and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) as the search giant’s ties to the White House are called into question.
Eric Schmidt, the search giant’s CEO, backed President Obama for his 2008 presidential bid, going on the campaign trail to show his support. After Obama won the election, Schmidt became a member of the President’s Transition Economic Advisory Board. He now sits on the President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council.
Apart from Schmidt, several former Google employees have found new homes in the Obama Administration. Sonal Shah, for example, currently runs the White House’s Office of Social Innovation. Shah was once the manager of development at Google.org, the search company's philanthropic arm. The White House’s Director of Citizen Participation, Katie Stanton, was also formerly a Google employee.
But perhaps the most worrisome example of Google’s ties to the White House, at least for critics, is Andrew McLaughlin. The former Google head of public policy was appointed in May 2009
by President Obama as the White House’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer. As soon as he was hired, consumer watchdogs started speaking out.
“When you bring in a political operative from one of the most powerful companies in that industry and turn over policymaking to those individuals, they can’t help but have conflicts of interests,” said Jeff Chester, the founder of the Center for Digital Democracy, in an interview at the time. “You need someone who can look at this in an independent way, who doesn’t view the use of all these very powerful digital tools through solely corporate eyes.”
Such comments have been echoing through Washington for quite some time. And they’ve heated up considerably since it was revealed that McLaughlin was using his personal email account to communicate with current Google staffers about government policy, including net neutrality legislation. The issue, according to government watchdogs, is that personal emails are not archived and thus not required to be retained under the Presidential Records Act.
Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California is especially concerned about McLaughlin’s use of personal email to discuss policy with Google. Earler this month, Issa sent a letter
to Google requiring the organization to answer several questions regarding its willingness to furnish email messages sent to, or received from, lawmakers or other key political figures. Issa has said that he’s concerned Google has too much access to the White House, potentially giving the company unnecessary influence on policy.
It’s an understandable worry. Lobbying has become a major issue in current government affairs. According to a recent New York Times article that Issa cited in his letter to Google, “lobbyists say that they routinely get email messages from White House staff members’ personal accounts rather than from their official White House accounts.”
But it goes beyond that. With such close ties to the White House, Google could potentially impose its will on policy. For some consumers, that might be a good thing, especially when it comes to net neutrality, but is there a line being crossed that could have a negative impact on the average Web user?
Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” pledge notwithstanding, the company is a for-profit organization that has come under fire recently for several issues, including Street View concerns, Google Buzz privacy troubles, and much more.
Some fear that, having such a close relationship with the White House, Google's increasing influence could conceivably help it maneuver its way out of legislative decisions that would put any potential privacy overreaches in check. That, in turn, could have a direct impact on users who desire more privacy and security while using the Web. Like any other company, Google needs a powerful watchdog, they say, or the company could potentially ignore user desires.
For its part, Google has said little in the past about its relationship with the White House or lawmakers in general. In May, the company said in a statement that its relationship with government is extremely important to its operation: “We understand that in order to be successful in Washington we need relationships on both sides of the aisle, and we have worked over the past few years to strengthen those relationships.”
Whether or not that’s a good thing is up for debate. But most can probably agree that Google’s White House ties are growing stronger. And eventually, we will find out if it’s really beneficial to its users.
At press time, Google had not submitted a comment in response to requests.
— Don Reisinger is a technology and video game columnist.