Watchdog wants probe of Google’s ‘unusually close’ ties to Obama

Watchdog wants probe of Google’s ‘unusually close’ ties to Obama

By Sara Jerome – 11/09/10 04:24 PM ET

As House Republicans plan an ambitious oversight agenda for the next session of Congress, a watchdog group is calling for a probe into a company that it says is far too cozy with the Obama administration: Google.

The National Legal and Policy Center (NLPC), a group that advocates for a smaller and more ethical government, wrote to leaders of the House Oversight Committee this month urging them to investigate a major privacy breach by Google. It wants to know if the company’s ties to the administration helped it dodge penalties after the incident.

The group also urges a look at Google’s ties to the administration more generally, pointing to what it calls “a growing body of evidence” that shows the administration’s “unusually close relationship with Google has resulted in favoritism towards the company on federal policy issues.”

“Like Halliburton in the previous administration, Google has an exceptionally close relationship with the current administration,” the letter says.

The NLPC letter encourages House Oversight Chairman Edolphus Towns (N.Y) and ranking member Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) to pick up where it believes federal regulators fell short in investigating Google’s Wi-Fi privacy breach.

After Google admitted last month that it collected and stored private user information, including passwords and entire e-mails, from Wi-Fi networks, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) closed an inquiry into the issue, citing promises from the company that it would improve its privacy practices.

But NLPC alleges that Google’s political clout might be the real reason the FTC dropped the probe.

“There is another deeply disturbing aspect to the FTC’s decision,” Kenneth Boehm, the NLPC chairman, writes in the letter to Capitol Hill. “Less than a week before Google’s announcement, President Obama went to the home of Google executive Marissa Mayer for a $30,000-per-person Democratic Party fundraiser.”

Boehm calls for the House to “conduct a fair and dispassionate investigation as to any linkage in these three events: the fundraiser, Google’s disclosure and the FTC’s action.”

He cites instances where the FTC may have been tougher on other companies, including Twitter, Sears and CVS, which were fined for privacy breaches in the last two years.

Boehm mounted six pages of evidence arguing that Google is too close to the Obama administration, including the fact that Andrew McLaughlin, a former Google employee, is now the U.S. deputy chief technology officer.

“The FTC’s decision to close its investigation into Google’s unauthorized gathering of private data through its Google Street View program is troubling enough. But looked at in the context of this Administration’s extraordinarily close relationship with Google, no fair-minded person could look at the record so far and not believe that further investigation is warranted,” the letter says.

Google has apologized for the privacy breach, saying it collected the private data by accident. That claim has prompted skepticism from privacy advocates and at least one lawmaker. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said last week that he thought Google’s actions were intentional. He said he would likely investigate Google’s Wi-Fi breach if he were to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a position he is campaigning for.

Issa, who has promised a thorough investigative agenda when he ascends to the top of the House Oversight Committee, has previously worked to shed light on ties between Google and the administration.

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