Why Schmidt's Campaign Travels with Obama Could Be Bad for Google

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2008-10-20

Why Schmidt's Campaign Travels with Obama Could Be Bad for Google

As I've already noted on my Google Watch blog today, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is hitting the campaign trail with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Schmidt told The Wall Street Journal his involvement stems from personal choice and is not intended to reflect Google's political views as a whole. A Google spokesperson in Washington confirmed this position, telling me today:

Eric is actively campaigning for Barack Obama because he believes that it is time for a change in America. In addition, his personal views on technology and energy are similar to Senator Obama's. Google of course remains neutral in the campaign.

But I can't help but wonder how such a move could backfire should Obama's running rival, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, come away victorious Nov. 4.
Where would that leave a company like Google, which needs to convince the government its search advertising practices do not violate privacy rules, and wants to keep the current privacy regulations from getting more stringent?

There's no question Google can't be partisan and must not align itself with any one party. Yet Google's Schmidt is permitted to consort with and cozy up to candidates to take their temperatures on technological issues that could impact their companies.

Not surprisingly, some political pundits think this could be a faux pas; despite Schmidt's and Google's claims to the contrary, some folks may choose to see Schmidt's endorsement as really being Google's endorsement.  

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Central for Digital Democracy, told me:

Google has tremendous business before a potential Obama White House. For propriety's sake, Schmidt should have kept his personal politics private. This appears to be an attempt to further curry favor and influence with a new administration.

Chester noted that Congress will be tackling online privacy, which many consider the key threat to Google's economic future. Aligning oneself, even if it is for personal reasons, too closely with an administration before that future administration is installed can be dangerous for Google.

Mr. Schmidt's work on behalf of Obama-while undoubtedly heartfelt-does place a conflict of interest cloud over any future Google and Obama administration relations. He's actually placing a potential President Obama in a potentially vulnerable situation. Mr. Schmidt is not General Colin Powell-his place is in Mountain View-not on the campaign trail. He should have written a check and kept in the background.

Will Schmidts Lobbying Blow Up in Googles Face?

I also believe Schmidt is sincere when he says his involvement with Obama is a personal choice, but I've no doubt he will use his time with Obama to lead him to Google's point of view on technological issues.
He may use the time to sow more seeds about greater open access for wireless devices, or perhaps laws that let Google continue running its advertising business unfettered.

He may convince Obama that Google isn't infringing on our privacy, and may in fact convince him that contextual advertising is good for advertisers and consumers, since it improves ad relevancy.

In short, Schmidt could use his time on the campaign trail to show what a good guy he is, and by extension, just how great Google is for stimulating the U.S. economy. After all, while eBay, possibly Yahoo and other smaller Internet businesses are laying people off during this recession, Google is seemingly immune.

This isn't the first or last time companies and political parties would align. AT&T and other phone carriers seem to be leaning toward McCain and the Republican campaign. Schmidt and Obama share similar personal views on technology, including on network neutrality, while companies such as AT&T are scared to death of Obama's position.

As Dallasnews.com noted Sunday, a network neutrality law would impose strict rules on how companies manage traffic on their networks, which could force AT&T and other carriers to offer free services marketed by competitors such as Google.

But if Schmidt lobbies for Obama and Obama loses to McCain, what happens then? Does McCain, out of some zealous vengeance, go after Google? Do he and his party craft superstringent online privacy rules that bind Google's ability to grow?

Does McCain pressure the Department of Justice to manage Google's pending deal with Yahoo, or prevent similar deals from going forward in the future?

These are issues that bear watching as we hurtle toward the presidential election Nov. 4.


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