Google should disclose its political spending and leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

You can Google anything right?

Well, try going to the search engine and entering “Google’s political spending.”

You’ll get something like this:

A screen grab of a Google search for the phrase "Google's political spending"

Ironically, the top result is Google’s “transparency policy.”

As you can see, while we get a few results for the company’s direct lobbying activities (which it is required by law to disclose), there’s little else to indicate what Google is doing with its other political dollars.

To make things clearer, I should explain that companies can spend money on politics in a few ways.

First, they can spend directly on lobbying themselves. They can also make direct political expenditures to back candidates or contribute to federally registered political committees. And in some states, they can contribute directly to candidates. This spending generally has to be disclosed.

But they can also spend money that doesn’t have to be disclosed. This spending can vary, but is most commonly done when a company makes contributions to “social welfare” organizations like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS or to “trade associations” like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Neither the organizations nor the companies have to disclose these types of contributions, and the organizations can spend money on a wide range of political activities.

Although we know Google has supported some good policies in the past — from green energy to Internet privacy — without knowing where its political dollars are going, it’s hard to be sure whether or not Google is undermining the causes it promotes. If you are investor in Google, you just have to have faith.

While we don’t know what Google is doing with much of its  political spending, we do know that it is a member of the U.S. Chamber. The trade association spent more than $32 million in the 2012 elections. The U.S. Chamber was also the biggest lobbyist organization in the country, spending more than $136 million in 2012 on such activities.

Google is undermining policies it supported in the past by funding the U.S. Chamber, which supports regressive policies such as fracking and championed SOPA and PIPA (anti-privacy legislation opposed by Google because it could have harmed the company’s users and destroyed sites like YouTube).

These apparent contradictions are why more than 300,000 people led by consumer groups U.S. Chamber Watch, US PIRG and SumOfUs, as well as more than 25 investor groups representing more than $125 billion in assets under management, have asked Google to change its political spending policies.

“Don’t Be Evil”

Google’s unofficial “Don’t be evil” slogan reflects that the company prides itself on being able to make money without doing bad things.

The investors and consumer groups acknowledged in their letters that Google should be lauded for its dedication to empowering people to find new knowledge. Throughout the world, the company is appreciated for its dedication to making the Internet accessible and transparent. The tools Google creates enable an unprecedented flow of information, allowing billions to connect with a global community.

For the company and its founders, this dedication to making information open is fundamental to what drives the company’s success. Google says the following on its website:

Transparency is a core value at Google. As a company we feel it is our responsibility to ensure that we maximize transparency around the flow of information related to our tools and services. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.

Because the strength of Google’s brand is so strongly tied to these principles, it is troublesome that the company has not yet adopted meaningful and transparent disclosure of its political spending. The lack of transparency undermines what makes Google appealing for users and for investors.

Just read the comments on the petition page we set up.

Many of the people who shared their thoughts suggested that while they want to believe what Google says it supports, the company is doing itself (and its users) a disservice by remaining a member of the U.S. Chamber.

How can we make informed choices – as investors, consumers and citizens – without adequate information?

When companies can funnel money into the political process through organizations like the U.S. Chamber, it means those companies don’t have to be accountable to the public.

If Google’s leaders really want to live up to the slogan “Don’t be evil,” they should adopt a policy to disclose the company’s political spending and they should leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce immediately.

Jake Parent is the coordinator of Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch. To learn more about Chamber Watch, follow @uschamberwatch on Twitter and sign up for email updates.

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