Disconnect on display: Google shareholders pressure the data-collection giant to be more transparent at annual meeting

Today Google’s shareholders will once again press the company at its annual shareholder meeting with a resolution to be more transparent about its lobbying expenditures. Though the company opposes the proposal, investors are right to request the tech giant to disclose this information.

Google has embraced old-school lobbying and political spending as a means to advance its policy positions: The tech giant has already spent more than $5.4 million on federal lobbying this year.

Good governance groups applauded the company’s decision last year to leave the controversial and regressive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), but have rightly pushed the company to do more. Exiting a group you disagree with on many issues isn’t necessarily a bold move, and Google’s shareholders are looking for the company to transition to a leader on political spending and lobbying transparency. Google notably lags behind many of its tech peers like Microsoft and Intel when it comes to this issue.

And, of course, there’s the irony of perhaps the world’s largest information-collection giant withholding information about itself. If Google’s leaders have no qualms about pushing forward with more and more sophisticated means of collecting information on its users, how can they justify keeping shareholders in the dark about what it’s up to?

Google has built a brand and a loyal following around the promise of doing things differently and not “being evil” (their words, not mine). But there’s no way for Google’s shareholders, or the public for that matter, to hold to company to its own standards if they don’t actually know what the company is doing to influence policy makers in Washington. If Google truly is staying true to its values, then the company should have no problem disclosing that to its shareholders.

There’s no better place to start than by examining the company’s membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A lobbying giant in its own right, the U.S. Chamber is often at odds with Google on green energy and Internet freedom policies. Why then does Google maintain its membership? Google’s head lawyer David Drummond has said the company doesn’t agree with all of the Chamber’s policies, but so far Google has declined to be specific about where the U.S. Chamber’s and Google’s policy positions align.

Why the ambiguity? Disclosing the purpose of Google’s contributions to the U.S. Chamber would seem like an easy way for Google to prove it’s sticking to its values.

And it’s not as though Google hasn’t gotten the message that shareholders are concerned with lobbying transparency. At least year’s meeting, after a little debate with Sam Jewler (formerly with Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch project), Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt assured investors that the company would, “come back with some ideas.”

This year Google’s shareholders are once again making a commonsense request. It’s long past time for the company to disclose the details of its lobbying expenditures. Hopefully it won’t make its investors keep asking for much longer.

Kelly Ngo is the online organizer with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.