Google’s critics have complained for several years that the company has grown too large and powerful to be entirely trustworthy. Fears about Google’s size helped scuttle a planned deal to power search for Yahoo and also spurred opposition to its $3.1 billion buyout of DoubleClick.
Now, new revelations have given some of Google’s most ardent critics additional ammunition. This week, it came to light that Google attempted to persuade a foundation to stop funding a Santa Monica, Calif.-based non-profit that criticized the search giant for its privacy stance.
Google’s Bob Boorstin, director of policy communications, sent an email to the Rose Foundation on Feb. 9 complaining about the group Consumer Watchdog and asking the charity to consider "whether there might be better groups in which to place your trust and resources." Last year, the Rose Foundation gave Consumer Watchdog $100,000.
A Rose Foundation representative replied to Boorstin that the foundation "has a long-standing policy of not interfering in its grantees’ program work." That message was itself cc-ed to Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court, who publicized it this week.
Boorstin subsequently issued a statement calling his email to the Rose Foundation "a mistake."
"We engaged for months with Consumer Watchdog and sent them detailed responses to their concerns about user privacy. But the group’s recent actions–and in particular its baseless accusation that we were lobbying Congress for the right to sell patients’ medical records–led us to believe that they are more interested in attracting media attention than in engaging in an open and honest dialog. Nonetheless, I made a mistake in sending information about the group’s activities to the Rose Foundation for which I apologize," he said in a statement.
But Google’s critics, including Consumer Watchdog, say the incident shows the search giant doesn’t hesitate to throw its weight around to stifle criticism.
"This wasn’t about simply defunding our efforts. This was about sending a signal to charitable funders that Google’s going to respond when fundees criticize it in ways they don’t like," said Consumer Watchdog’s Court.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the consumer group Center for Digital Democracy, had a similar interpretation. "Google’s letter sends a strong message to the foundation world that they shouldn’t support groups that question the company."
At the Electronic Privacy Information Center, associate director Lillie Coney said she was "speechless" that a Google executive would have attempted to cut off a group’s funding. "I don’t think this was their finest moment," she said of Google. "Those in powerful positions can exert a lot of pressure and a lot of discomfort on the little voices out there."
The dispute started late last month, when Congress was debating the stimulus package. Consumer Watchdog publicly asked Google "to cease a rumored lobbying effort aimed at allowing the sale of electronic medical records" as part of the bill.
Google denied that allegation. "This claim–based on no evidence whatsoever–is 100% false and unfounded," Google stated on its policy blog. "We are supportive of strong privacy protections for medical records."
Court said that after his group issued its statement, Google also canceled a planned Feb. 18 meeting.
On Monday, Court complained in a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt about Boorstin’s outreach to the Rose Foundation. "One would think Google’s top executives have more important priorities than defunding a consumer group critical of your lack of privacy protections," he wrote.
Court in that letter also called on Google to disclose what positions the company had advocated when lobbying Congress on medical privacy.
A Google spokesperson reiterated Tuesday that the company "opposes the sale of health information" and supports "strong privacy protections for medical records."
Consumer Watchdog, founded in 1985, has long advocated for patients’ rights, among other issues. The organization says on its Web site that it has chartered trains to take senior citizens to Canada, where they can obtain cheaper prescription drugs, and has helped 6,000 patients restore insurance coverage that was illegally canceled.
"I’ve fought with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis," Court said Tuesday. "Bob Boorstin doesn’t scare me."