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Google wants to get rid of watchdogs, no apologies

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Wed, Feb 25, 2009 at 12:01 pm

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When I walked into the Consumer Watchdog office today on a press conference seeking to protect benefits for autistic children, it occurred to me just what is so insidious about the recent effort of a top Google executive to de-fund Consumer Watchdog. 

As you may have read, Bob Boorstin, Google’s Director Of Corporate and Policy Communications, recently wrote the Rose Foundation, which funds our group, and asked the charity to consider pulling our funding.  Google didn’t like our hounding the company on Capitol Hill over the medical privacy protection provisions of the stimulus bil.  "I am hoping that as you consider the activities of your grantees and
whether to renew your commitments, you will take these kinds of
activities into account and consider whether there might be better
groups in which to place your trust and resources," Boorstin wrote. " I would like
permission from you to address a letter to your Board of Trustees or
Board of Directors in which we can highlight the activities of this
grantee.” Hmm.You would think Google executives have better things to do than go after the funding of a small consumer group like ours.

My open letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt makes the case that Google needs to be more open about its lobbying and more dedicated to putting privacy over the bottom line.  Many privacy advocates have since been called to express their support  and their worries that Google’s actions will have a chilling effect on their own funding.  This morning an advocate from DC emailed me a National Journal article with this key quote:  "Google is launching a new effort to counter its critics with stepped-up outreach to analysts, journalists, policymakers and think tanks."  Apparently this includes de-funding watchdogs that go public with criticism rather than calling Google quietly first.

It’s extremely troubling that a company whose mission is to open the world’s information is so petty and hypocritical about its own corporate secrecy.  I like many Google products, and use them, knowing its no free lunch, and privacy is the cost of many.  We fight to make things better, but Google’s latest tactics are about more than privacy, but about an open society. The truth is that Google is putting watchdogs out of business.  The newspapers that keep an eye on politicians and companies like Google are going belly up because of Google’s business model and monopolistic control of online advertising.  Now Google appears to be entering a new phase of its corporate development that is anything but enlightened and makes its "Do No Evil" motto anachronistic.

Shame on Google for trying to get rid of the Davids.  It’s not just the criticism of the company that goes out the door if Google’s successful, but the voices of our advocates who took on the HMOs and Schwarzenegger Administration today over denying vital applied behavioral therapy to autistic children. Many of those young kids played in the halls of our offices as their parents talked to the media today.   Watching them, it occured to me that Google’s new direction threatens these autistic children. Will Google speak for them if Consumer Watchdog disappears?

Google needs to remember that when it wipes out the watchdogs — be it The San Francisco Chronicle, which is now threatened with closure, or Consumer Watchdog — the company is destroying pivotal pillars of a democratic society, the voices of dissent.  All the open information in the world will not create positive change absent the focus watchdogs bring to populist issues in order to leverage political decisions. 

After the initial Congressional Quarterly article on our dispute ran, Google’s Boorstin issued a statement to the media saying that he apologized.  I have yet to receive an apology, nor has The Rose Foundation.   Boorstin’s virtual apology appears more aimed at killing off news coverage, than signaling remorse and redirection.  I’ll let you know if Eric Schmidt answers my letter, but I suspect he’s too busy flying high on the Google private jet fleet to deign an answer, just as he blew off my colleague John Simpson at a recent speech in Washington.

Maybe it’s time for the other founders of Google to step up and chime in about some ethics for a company that is quickly becoming the official technology of the United States and the world.  Sergey, Larry, where are you?

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This post was written by:

Jamie Court

- who has written 26 posts on Inside Google.

Jamie Court is the author of The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell and the President of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

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