Google enjoys a reputation, based on its early freewheeling days, as a scrappy and happy-go-lucky outfit. But as the company’s search engine has morphed into an array of products and services that touch almost every aspect of the Internet, consumer advocates have started to take notice — and not in a flattering way.
Now, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Rose Foundation of Oakland, Calif., Google has its very own independent monitor in Washington, in the person of Carmen Balber of the California group Consumer Watchdog.
Since winning the grant last August, the group has challenged Google privacy practices related to its Gmail electronic mail program and its Chrome Web browser. Last month, the group accused Google of lobbying Congress to weaken privacy protections for medical records stored in its Google Health program.
“Their business model is incompatible with privacy,” says Jamie Court, Consumer Watchdog’s president.
Google executives are not happy with all the attention, responding in no uncertain terms on a company blog that the charges on the health care issue are “based on no evidence whatsoever” and are “100 percent false and unfounded.” Google’s senior policy counsel, Pablo Chavez, wrote that Consumer Watchdog has shown bad faith by going public with its accusations before discussing them with the company.
This month, Google’s director of corporate and policy communications, Bob Boorstin, followed up with the Rose Foundation’s executive director, Tim Little, complaining of “difficult interactions” with Consumer Watchdog and asking to discuss them. “We have meetings constantly with groups that disagree with us,” says Boorstin. “We’re happy to have open discussions based on facts.” But Consumer Watchdog, he says, is “acting without integrity.”
Little, however, is standing by his grantee. “The Rose Foundation has a long-standing policy of not interfering in its grantees’ program work,” he responded in an e-mail to Boorstin, adding that he believed Consumer Watchdog “is raising very fundamental questions about privacy over the Internet.”
Court says Google ought to explain clearly why it is lobbying on the health care issue if it’s not to circumvent medical privacy. And Court says his group will continue to raise questions. “We just want them to guarantee that search results are not stored, that what people write in Gmail is not used for marketing, and that health records don’t go to third parties,” he said. “Google is treating us like crazy bomb throwers, but we’ve been doing this for 20 years.”