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.

White House, Google violate lobbying pledge

Timothy P. Carney: White House, Google violate lobbying pledge

By: Timothy P. Carney
Examiner Columnist
June 25, 2010

(Ap File Photo) (AP file photo)

Maybe a $150 billion company with 21,000 employees and 20 percent profit margins doesn’t count as big business or a special interest if it talks about “changing the world from the bottom up, not from the top down,” as President Obama put it.

Maybe a millionaire who spends his days leaning on policymakers to benefit his company isn’t a lobbyist if he calls himself an “Internet evangelist.”

Or maybe Google’s cozy relationship with the White House — exposed more clearly by e-mails recently made public through the Freedom of Information Act — is just one more instance of the administration’s actions contradicting Obama’s reformer rhetoric about battling the special interests and freeing Washington from lobbyist influence.

Consumer Watchdog, a liberal nonprofit, used FOIA to obtain e-mails between White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin and his former colleagues at Google. McLaughlin was Google’s head of global public policy and government affairs, up until he joined the White House.

Despite the job title, McLaughlin wasn’t a registered lobbyist. Still, ethics rules created by an Obama executive order prohibit McLaughlin from “participat[ing] in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to” Google. But the e-mails show McLaughlin has been involved with formulating policy that directly affects Google, regularly trading e-mails with Google’s “evangelist,” and lobbyist.

The topic of net neutrality — where the Obama administration and Google share a pro-regulation position that would profit Google — appears repeatedly in McLaughlin-Google e-mails.

When one news report suggested the White House was backing away from the pro-Google regulations, Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf wrote a worried note to McLaughlin, asking, “Has there been so much flack from the Hill that you guys feel a need to back away?”

McLaughlin reassured his former colleague, “Don’t be silly. No one’s backed away from anything.”

Later, when McLaughlin took heat in the media for publicly comparing AT&T — Google’s rival in the net neutrality debate — to the communist Chinese government, Google lobbyist Alan Davidson sent McLaughlin a heads up that a reporter had called Google about it. Davidson assured McLaughlin that he would get the Open Internet Coalition — a pro-net-neutrality lobby headed by Google — to “have your back.”

“Thanks,” McLaughlin wrote back. Davidson followed up the next day, taking credit for killing the story.

McLaughlin knew he was barred from dealing with Google, the e-mails show. When Cerf passed him an e-mail about Google Earth and an issue regarding a border dispute in Cambodia, McLaughlin responded, “in my current position, I’m recused from anything having to do with Google.”

When I asked the White House about McLaughlin’s e-mails, Rick Weiss, a spokesman at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, responded that McLaughlin’s “e-mails to Vint did not run afoul of the pledge since Vint is a federal advisory committee member with whom Andrew is allowed to communicate on matters of relevance to that committee.”

But Cerf was using a e-mail address and writing about regulations Google was aggressively backing.

And only when I followed up with a question about the e-mails with lobbyist Davidson did Weiss admit “they did violate the President’s Ethics Pledge,” and note that McLaughlin had been reprimanded.

But what else is McLaughlin working on that directly affects his former colleagues with whom he is in regular contact? It’s hard to imagine many tech issues that don’t directly affect Google, and so it’s hard to imagine very many issues McLaughlin could work on that don’t clash with Obama’s ethics rules.

McLaughlin’s role is only one strand in the web of Google-Obama connections.

Google trailed only Goldman Sachs and Microsoft as a source of funds for Obama in 2008, providing $803,000 — 40 times what Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain raised from the company. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt was a fundraiser and adviser for Obama’s campaign.

Obama speaks a lot about battling the special interests. But, evidently, his friends don’t count.


Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner’s lobbying editor. His K Street column appears on Wednesdays.