WASHINGTON, D.C. – Google is so rapidly expanding both its information-collecting capabilities and its political clout that it could become too powerful to be held accountable, a new Public Citizen report finds.
“Mission Creep-y: Google Is Quietly Becoming One of the Nation’s Most Powerful Political Forces While Expanding Its Information-Collection Empire” looks at the ways Google is accruing power both in terms of the information it collects about the public and the sway it has over federal and state governments, as well as civil society.
Privacy experts say only the National Security Agency (NSA) rivals Google in terms of information gathering, and a recent survey showed that Americans are more concerned about companies like Google than the NSA. But Public Citizen documents that Google has not always warned the public before collecting or combining users’ information in new ways – and some of its collection practices have pushed the boundaries of the law. This is cause for concern as Google expands into new technological developments and acquisitions that collect information beyond what people do on the Internet.
In addition, the company is amassing greater political power than ever. Having recently moved its influence operation into new Washington, D.C., offices as large as the White House, Google has become one of the most politically active companies in the US:
- Over the first three quarters of 2014, Google ranked first among all corporations in lobbying spending, according to OpenSecrets.org, and is on pace to spend $18.2 million on federal lobbying this year. In fact, it has spent $1 million more on lobbying than PhRMA, the powerful trade association of the pharmaceutical industry.
- Since 2012, no company has spent more money on federal lobbying than Google.
- Of 102 lobbyists the company has hired or retained in 2014, 81 previously held government jobs. Meanwhile, a steady stream of Google employees has been appointed to high-ranking government jobs – an indication of the company’s growing influence in national affairs.
- Google’s political action committee (PAC) spent $1.61 million this year, according to Federal Election Commission records. That surpasses, for the first time, PAC expenditures by Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs.
- Google funds about 140 trade associations and other nonprofits across the ideological spectrum – including some working in issue areas relevant to Google’s practices on privacy, political spending, antitrust and more.
- Google has come under scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission on several occasions, including racking up the commission’s largest civil penalty ever, $22.5 million, in a settlement over Google bypassing Safari browser settings to track users.
“Google is becoming exponentially more powerful in federal and state governments. At the same time, it’s pushing boundaries in technology, and it has shown that it can’t always be trusted to do the right thing with people’s information,” said Sam Jewler, author of the report and communications officer for Public Citizen’s US Chamber Watch. “When we see such massive influence, it raises the question, will regulators and lawmakers be reluctant to rein in Google?”
“While Google provides many popular and useful services to the world, its information-collection business model and its history of questionable practices indicate that, if left to its own devices, it may not always do what’s best for the public.”
Meanwhile, Google is expanding to amass new forms of information about all of us. While its market-leading search, Gmail and Android smart phone operating systems are well-known conduits through which Google collects information, the company is ambitiously expanding its technologies into the skies, onto people’s bodies and into homes through numerous new ventures. Along with its ongoing development of potentially revolutionary new technologies such as Google Glass and self-driving cars, Google spent more money on acquisitions than Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and Yahoo! – combined – in 2012 and 2013. Meanwhile, Google has steadily adopted more permissive policies about collecting information about its customers, the report shows.
In the report, Public Citizen describes how Google’s mass collection of information makes it a treasure trove for agencies like the NSA – to which it is legally bound to comply with most information requests – and to hackers and rogue employees.
Some of the new technologies Google has acquired include Skybox, which owns satellites that capture high-definition images and video around the planet multiple times per day; Nest and Dropcam, home devices that monitor things like temperature, energy usage, proximity of the owner to the house, and take video in the home; and Emu, which could be used to monitor and advertise in online chats and text messages.
“Google has essentially responded to concerns about its practices by saying ‘just trust us,’” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division and editor of the report. “But Google is gaining so much power that regulators may find it difficult to act if it turns out that the public’s trust has been misplaced.”
A recent report by the Center for Political Accountability on the transparency of companies’ political spending showed Google ranked as average among all companies, lagging behind some of its biggest technology sector peers. The company has faced calls from shareholders for it to be more transparent. It also does not meet transparency standards set by technology companies like Microsoft, such as disclosing how much money it gives to third-party groups such as the 140 nonprofits and trade associations it supports, using transparent corporate oversight to make political spending decisions, or disclosing information about its state lobbying spending.
Google recently withdrew from the American Legislative Exchange Council (better known by its acronym ALEC) over differences on climate change. But Google continues to provide unknown amounts of funding to major dark money groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, which also diverges from Google on energy issues.
See Public Citizen’s petition calling on Google to leave the US Chamber of Commerce.