Google Critic Calls for Probe

Mon, Jan 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    One of Google’s biggest critics is now urging new House Republican leaders to investigate the search giant’s ties to the Obama administration.

    The request Monday comes from Consumer Watchdog, which is asking Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to wield his “subpoena power if necessary” to bring soon-departing Google CEO Eric Schmidt before his oversight committee this year. The group hopes Issa will investigate “several areas where we believe Google has inappropriately benefited from close ties to the administration.”

    Among Consumer Watchdog’s concerns is an incident last year in which Google’s Street View accidentally intercepted data transmitted over users’ wireless Internet networks, which the group says should have received more federal scrutiny than it did.

    “This is the largest wiretapping scandal in world history by one of America’s biggest and most powerful corporations, yet there has not been a single hearing on Capitol Hill. We respectfully submit that Google CEO Eric Schmidt should be asked to testify under oath so that the American public learns the truth about Wi-Spy,” wrote Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and Inside Google project director John Simpson.

    Google was unavailable for comment early Monday morning, but the company has long stressed that it is working with regulators worldwide to address a mistake it regrets.

    Consumer Watchdog is no stranger to debates over Google: Many are sure to remember the group for its more than minute-long “Don’t Be Evil?” video that played on a Jumbotron right in Times Square. The 3-D animated ad, which satirized Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto, took particular aim at the Mountain View, Calif., company’s approach to online privacy.

    It was also Consumer Watchdog that employed a Freedom of Information Act request to discover that former Obama administration Web chief Andrew McLaughlin kept in close contact with his former Google co-workers, even though the president’s ethics pledge prohibited him from doing so.

    Consumer Watchdog’s latest missive arrives on the same day the group is also unveiling a report detailing what it believes are other inappropriate links between Google and the administration.

    The report charges that Google and NASA have become “cozy” over the search giant’s access to planes housed at Moffett Field, located near Mountain View, though Consumer Watchdog notes that Google pays $1.3 million in “annual rent and use of their aircraft in scientific experiments.”

    The group also takes issue with Google’s “secretive relationship with the National Security Agency.” Consumer Watchdog stresses the NSA “has the legal power to force Google to hand over the private information of its users,” though most industry leaders widely believe Google remains in touch with the NSA mostly because of a high-profile cyberattack on the company’s Gmail system in China last year. Still, Consumer Watchdog says there must be more to that relationship, otherwise the NSA would have responded to FOIA requests about the agency’s work with Google.

    The report even questions the FBI’s use of Google Earth and other mapping technology for surveillance and criticizes the General Services Administration for awarding a $6.5 million contract to Google to provide e-mail service for some employees. Even though Google obtained the latter contract through competitive bidding, Consumer Watchdog says some questioned whether “Google received preferential treatment, while other officials raised concerns about privacy and conflicts of interest.”

    But it’s the Street View flap that peeves Consumer Watchdog the most, an incident it has since dubbed “Wi-Spy.” The group’s accompanying letter takes great issue with the Federal Trade Commission, which dropped its Google inquiry last year. At the time, the agency said Google did not deceive customers — it in fact admitted to the breach and made promises to federal officials to boost its privacy protections.

    The Federal Communications Commission, however, is believed to be conducting its own investigation into the matter.

    “Google is most consumers’ gateway to the Internet. Many of the company’s services are tremendously popular. Nonetheless, it should not get special treatment and access because of a special relationship with the administration,” the letter concludes.

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