Consumer Watchdog Project to Track Google's Dealings With U.S.

The Google Transparency Project will compile data on Google's influence on government and make it publicly available.

Google Watchdog 2

Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a Washington-based watchdog group focused on exposing undue corporate influence in government, has turned its attention to Google.

The group this week launched a Google Transparency Project in a bid to shine a light on the Internet giant's alleged influence on public policies, on the government and on consumers in general.

The impetus for the campaign—the first of its type for the group—stems from what the CfA described as the relative opacity of Google's dealings with government. From its roots as an Internet search company, Google has grown to become one of the most influential and wealthiest corporations in the world, the group noted.

It has insinuated itself into almost every facet of people's lives, scanned millions of books, photographed homes and streets, analyzed search queries, and gathered information on people's online activities and their movements in the physical world—often done so in ways that are surreptitious.

In 2015, Google's parent company Alphabet Inc. spent more than $16 million on Washington lobbyists, making it the 12th highest spender overall and the biggest by far among technology companies.

Over the years, Google has been a vocal advocate of transparency and openness in corporations and in government, but has not been quite as forthcoming about its own relationships with government and appointed officials, the CfA said.

"Google has long been a strong advocate of transparency in government, business, and even users' private lives," CfA Executive Director Anne Weismann said in a statement announcing the transparency project. "It has not, however, been transparent about its own dealings with the government."

Under the Google transparency initiative, the CfA will gather and organize publicly available data pertaining to Google's activities and make it available for anybody to inspect, analyze and investigate.

In announcing the effort this week, the group released two datasets that it said highlighted Google's level of access within government and its close relationships with officials.

One of the documents is based on White House visitor logs purportedly showing that employees of Google and related companies met with White House officials a total of 427 times between the time the Obama administration first took office and October 2015.

The other dataset lists the number of times Google has hired a government employee, or a Google employee has gone to government. The data shows that a total of 251 people have moved in one direction or the other since the start of the Obama administration, the CfA said.

It described the data as demonstrating the high level of access that Google has with government and the "revolving door" moves between the two sides.

This is not the first time someone has suggested a cozy relationship between Google and government. Last year, the Wall Street Journal claimed that one of the reasons why the Federal Trade Commission dropped a 19-month antitrust investigation of Google in 2013—against the wishes of some of its own staffers—was because of the company's relationship with the White House.

Like the CfA, the Journal used White House visitor logs to highlight the number of times Google employees had visited the White House and claimed that the data suggested an undue level of access.

But Google has dismissed outright such suggestions and has characterized them as misleading and inaccurate. The company has claimed that the meetings it had with White House officials pertained to a wide range of matters, including patent reforms, science and technology education, autonomous cars and cyber-security.

It has noted that many of the meetings listed in the White House logs were meetings involving representatives from other technology vendors as well, including Microsoft and Yahoo. In rebutting the Journal's report last year, Google had also noted that Microsoft officials had visited the White House more often during the same period than Google employees.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Jaikumar Vijayan

Vijayan is an award-winning independent journalist and tech content creation specialist covering data security and privacy, business intelligence, big data and data analytics.