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Scrutiny grows on Google’s political spending

Do you think there should be checks on people wearing computers on their faces while driving? Feel like there should be some oversight on self-driving cars? How about limits on the ability of companies to collect and commercialize information about elementary school students?

As today’s front page Politico article explains, these are a few of the issue areas in which Google is lobbying state officials behind closed doors, hurting society’s ability to have a democratic conversation about major new questions of our day. And there’s likely more legislation being pushed by Google that we don’t know about.

Tony Romm’s article, “States of Play: Google’s political roots run deep at the local level to counter regulators on Google Glass, Fiber and self-driving cars,” adds to the crescendo of concern about Google’s growing, nontransparent political spending. In addition to Google’s position as a voracious vacuum of consumers’ personal information, it has become a major lobbying spender on the federal level, sitting at No. 2 among companies so far this year. And Romm notes that there’s a whole other realm of lobbying where Google is very active and far less than transparent about its activities: state and local governments.

Many states don’t have the same lobbying disclosure requirements as the federal government, and despite its ethos of valuing open access to information, Google takes advantage of that. It paid hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying in states like Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland and New York, only disclosing, respectively, that it was working on “economic development incentives,” “economic development,” “technology” and an “introduction” to state regulators. To call this level of information “disclosure” is farcical.

And the policies we do know Google quietly lobbies on are issues we should be discussing openly. Discussions around personal information privacy, self-driving cars with no brakes or steering wheels, and appropriate and safe use of Google Glass will have wide impacts and should include the public, not just high-priced lobbyists and politicians meeting behind closed doors.

Google also funds a large number of groups, including ones like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that lobby without disclosing their funders. Google funds some 140 trade groups and nonprofits, including Public Knowledge, a senior vice president of which provided a quote in the Politico article without the reporter noting that relationship. Other companies, including ones in the tech field like Microsoft, publicize how much money they provide to nonprofits. Google should do the same.

Romm wrote that Google “declined to detail its specific agenda – or make available anyone for an interview” about its growing lobbying activities, which is in keeping with its unannounced expansion of its Washington, D.C., lobbying office and its inadequate disclosure of its political spending. A company that puts such an emphasis on the value of making information accessible looks hypocritical when it acts so secretively. This, paired with Google’s pervasiveness in our lives, profit motive to collect more information about us, and ambitions to radically alter technology and privacy, should concern us all.

Google provides some political activity information on its website, but could share a lot more – it got a low 51 percent on the 2013 Center for Political Accountability-Zicklin political spending transparency index. A shareholder proposal that received 34 percent of non-shareholder votes this year called on Google to increase its transparency, demanding measures such as disclosing state lobbying activities and disclosing payments made to trade groups and nonprofits for the purposes of lobbying.

Google also is active in campaign spending, having given more than a million dollars to federal, state, county and city candidates and parties over the past few years, much of it in California, where the company is based. It’s spending big to elect to the House of Representatives Rohit Khanna, who once told the New York Times, “I wear [the label] tech groupie as a badge of honor.” Democracies suffer from shady lobbying and elected officials who are beholden to corporate interests.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt acknowledged at the company’s May 2014 shareholder meeting that he hears the transparency concerns loud and clear; yet Google has taken no action to address them. It should do so soon, lest “Don’t be Google” becomes the next “Don’t be Evil.”

Sam Jewler is the communications and research officer for Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch program.