Washington, DC — Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court wrote Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt today questioning the company’s priorities following efforts by one of Google’s top executives to dissuade a charitable foundation from supporting the nonpartisan group’s privacy efforts.
“We have tried to constructively engage Google on its privacy problems for about six months now,” Court wrote. “So it’s remarkable that Google’s most rapid and substantive response to our privacy concerns is a letter from your director of Corporate and Policy Communications to the charity funding our work seeking an end to its support.
“One would think Google’s top executives have more important priorities than defunding a consumer group critical of your lack of privacy protections. Nonetheless I am writing to offer some observations about Google’s less than open corporate culture, its opaque public policymaking division and some suggestions for change and moving forward.”
Consumer Watchdog recommended that Google should openly disclose all its lobbying positions on Capitol Hill and create a Chief Privacy Ombudsman, independent of its corporate structure and general counsel, that reports directly to Schmidt and the board of directors.
Bob Boorstin, Google’s Director of Corporate and Policy Communications, recently wrote to the Rose Foundation complaining of Consumer Watchdog’s efforts: “Most recently, they accused our company – without any evidence whatsoever and actually referencing ‘a rumored lobbying effort’ in a press release – of trying to obtain permission to sell patient medical records. 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. 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.”
Read Court’s full letter here.
In the letter, Court specifically addressed Boorstin’s charges:
“As our staff and other consumer advocates sought stronger privacy protections in the stimulus bill on Capitol Hill, they were told Google was lobbying to weaken the current prohibition on the sale of medical records and shave off protections. Google’s public policy blog claims this is “100% false.” Nonetheless an independent journalist, George Lauer, iHealthBeat Features Editor, wrote on January 30 that "[t]wo other privacy advocates and a Congressional staffer who did not want to go on record said they have heard reports of Google representatives contacting Congress members’ offices." Lauer’s article is available at: http://tinyurl.com/cwsgx4. We have since asked Mr. Boorstin via letter to explain Google’s policy position on the medical privacy provisions, but have received no response other than his outreach to the Rose Foundation seeking to end our funding.
“The public record shows that Google has actively lobbied on electronic medical record legislation in the past, which contains provisions similar to those in the current stimulus bill. Google’s fourth quarter 2008 lobbying report and those of its hired lobbyists, Podesta Group and King&Spalding, make reference to H.R. 6357, which is the precursor to the stimulus medical privacy provisions at issue. The reports do not show what positions Google advocated and your public policy team appears unwilling to disclose its Congressional communications and positions on this privacy legislation.
“For a company that states ‘our corporate mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’ the degree of secrecy that surrounds Google’s public policy positions about privacy issues is deeply troubling.
"Why will Google not disclose all the specific public policy communications it makes to Congress, regulatory agencies and the white house on matters of medical and personal privacy? Failing to do so is incompatible with the portrait Google paints of itself publicly.”
Court called for the following corporate reforms:
"Google should openly disclose all your lobbying positions on Capitol Hill. Google should publish all of its correspondence and policy communications to legislators, as we do, and as a way of practicing the open information culture it preaches. In Washington, unlike California, policy positions are often written on blank pieces of paper untraceable to the corporate authors. This is incompatible with Google’s vision for the world. In fact, the final stimulus law subjects Google to the requirements that breaches of electronic medical records be reported to patients – the first time that such requirements have been extended beyond health care professional to vendors of electronic medical records. It’s vital the public and users of Google Health know if Google will lobby on technical clean-up legislation in the coming weeks with the goal of eviscerating these standards.
“Google should create a Chief Privacy Ombudsman, independent of your corporate structure and general counsel, that reports directly to you and the board of directors. The fact that Mr. Boorstin stopped any discussions and forward momentum on the privacy issues we raised is a good example of how lower level managers, threatened by new ideas, can quell corporate growth and transcendence. A privacy ombudsman, dedicated not to the bottom line or a legislative agenda, but to honest dialogue about privacy would speak frankly to your board and serve you well.”
Consumer Watchdog is a nonpartisan, nonprofit consumer group. Read more about the group’s corporate campaign for better privacy protections at: www.ConsumerWatchdog.org/google.
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