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All-seeing Google lacks transparency

Note: This post originally appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog.

There is a vast and dangerous imbalance of transparency in Google’s relationship with the American people. The company, which has a $395 billion market capitalization value – the second largest after Apple –  can see our Internet searches, our inboxes, our contacts, our instant messages, our use of maps to get around, our shared documents, and more. “No one knows as much about its customers as Google,” said the chief executive of Europe’s largest newspaper publisher recently. In fact, Google’s business model relies on collecting as much information as possible about its users and selling it to advertisers, which then follow us around the Internet, peddling their wares with an eerie omniscience.

Compare Google’s all-seeing position with how little we know about what the tech giant is spending to influence our government. We know Google is providing what it calls “substantial contributions” to at least 39 trade associations and membership organizations, including extreme right-wing groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which pours tens of millions of dollars into election ads, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which writes and lobbies for conservative legislation. But we don’t know how much funding it provides them, or to what ends – which is the ultimate definition of dark money.

This year, a resolution proposed by Google shareholders calls for the increasingly powerful company to publicly disclose its lobbying policies and expenditures. We stand with the shareholders and call on Google to address the imbalance of transparency between what it knows about our day-to-day lives and how much we know about its lobbying expenditures, which in the end influence all of our lives.The CPA-Zicklin Index of the Center for Political Accountability rates Google’s disclosure policy at 51.4 percent – decidedly average among a class of Fortune 500 companies with voluntary disclosure policies. Though Google isn’t the worst of the worst, it claims transparency and good corporate citizenship while trailing peers like Ebay (64.3 percent), Hewlett-Packard (67.1 percent), Dell (77.1 percent), Intel (88.6 percent) and Microsoft (92.9 percent) on the index. Microsoft and HP, for example, disclose the size of non-deductible portions (used for political or lobbying activities) of their payments, including dues and special assessments above $25,000 and $15,000 respectively, to trade associations each year.

Google scored particularly poorly on its transparency in payments to 527 groups, such as governors associations and super PACs; on its payments to trade associations or other tax-exempt organizations of which the company is either a member or donor; and on several measures of outside board oversight.

This year, the Google Stockholder Proposal Regarding a Lobbying Report, filed by Walden Asset Management along with a coalition of faith and environmental groups, articulates a shareholder call for an annually updated lobbying report from Google, which would disclose: company procedures governing lobbying; payments by Google for lobbying; Google’s membership in and payments to tax-exempt organizations that write and endorse model legislation; and descriptions of the decision-making process for political spending.

While Google voluntarily discloses a small amount of information about its lobbying activity, it does not reveal how much money it gives to a variety of groups that use that money to influence elections, including conservative ones such as the U.S. Chamber, ALEC, Heritage Action, Grover “drown [government] in a bathtub” Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, and others that work in opposition to supposed Google values, such as taking action on climate change. It is important to know how much money it gives to those groups and what it is spent on, so shareholders and users can be sure the company is really reflecting their values.

In its response to the shareholder proposal, Google writes, “Google has long been a champion of disclosure and transparency,” and “Our board of directors believes that participating in the political process in a transparent manner is an important way to enhance stockholder value and promote good corporate citizenship.” Then it advises its shareholders to vote against the transparency proposal. Google may own more information about the average American than any other entity. It gives money to nearly 140 business trade groups and advocacy organizations without disclosing the size or nature of those donations. It has a Capitol Hill office nearly the size of the White House. In the age of huge money in politics, a world increasingly watched by Google deserves to get the full transparency Google claims to value.

Take Action: On Wednesday, May 14, members of the Corporate Reform Coalition with partners in California will hold a protest outside of Google’s annual shareholder meeting. Get the details here.

This post was written by Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, and Sam Jewler, communications and research officer for Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch.