Google seeks starvation of growling watchdog
(Semi-)apology for money-snuffing missive
Google has attempted to cut the funding of a well-known public watchdog, after the organization launched a "guerrilla" attack on its Washington lobby operation.
In a statement sent to The Register this morning, Google apologized for the incident. But it has yet to apologize directly to the parties involved.
In late January, the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog issued a press release urging Google to cease a "rumored lobbying effort aimed at allowing the sale of electronic medical records" via President Obama's economic stimulus bill.
The Mountain View search giant now runs an online medical records service dubbed Google Health. But it vehemently denied Consumer Watchdog's claim, and in the past, it has said it has no intention of serving ads on the service.
Two weeks after the press release was issued, Google's director of corporate and policy communications, Bob Boorstin, sent a note to the Rose Foundation, the philanthropic organization that funds Consumer Watchdog's ongoing investigation into Google's privacy practices. In the note, Boorstin suggested that the foundation reconsider its support for the public advocate.
"In the case of Consumer Watchdog, I want to point out that they have taken it upon themselves to launch attacks upon Google that are totally fictitious," he wrote.
"Most recently, they accused our company - without any evidence whatsoever and actually referencing 'a rumored lobbying effort' in a press release - of trying to obtain permission to sell patient medical records. I am hoping that as you consider the activities of your grantees and whether to renew your commitments, you will take these kinds of activities into account and consider whether there might be better groups in which to place your trust and resources."
Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court soon responded by firing his own letter at Google CEO Eric Schmidt, questioning the company's priorities in light of the Boorstin incident.
"We have tried to constructively engage Google on its privacy problems for about six months now," Court wrote. "So it's remarkable that Google's most rapid and substantive response to our privacy concerns is a letter from your director of Corporate and Policy Communications to the charity funding our work seeking an end to its support.
"One would think Google's top executives have more important priorities than defunding a consumer group critical of your lack of privacy protections. Nonetheless, I am writing to offer some observations about Google's less than open corporate culture, its opaque public policymaking division and some suggestions for change and moving forward."
Rumor has it...
The privacy advocate may have erred in hanging its press release on Washington "rumors." Speaking with The Reg, Court wouldn't say where - specifically - they came from. "The word on the Hill is that they were trying to shave the privacy protections for medical records that were already built into the law," he said.
But as Court points out in his letter to Eric Schmidt, in its fourth quarter lobbying report, Google alluded to lobbying efforts on an earlier public health bill without providing details. And he says that he took the latest rumors public before talking to Google because the company has been slow to respond to his communications in the past.
His latest letter calls on the company to publicly disclose all of its lobbying positions.
"Google is built on a system of open information. They have an obligation to openly disclose their lobbying positions because of who they are," he tells us. "Their corporate mission is to open all information to the world. And they say they live by what they preach. And their model is don't do evil."
The irony, Court says, is that Google is moving in the other direction, attempting to silence an organization urging the company to open up. "Google is getting rid of the watchdogs - by design or not," he says. "It's business model is replacing the free press. And now it's literally trying to get rid of the watchdogs like myself."
Jeffery Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy sees both sides of this ongoing kerfuffle. But considering that Google controls such vast amounts of the world's data, he agrees that Google has an obligation to disclose its lobbying positions. "Consumer Watchdog is an in-your-face public advocate and I understand why its guerrilla tactics may have clashed with Google," he tells us. "But they're right to ask Google for transparency...
"Google has become the most powerful media company ever, an intermediary between the public and information. It has to live up to a higher standard for disclosure and accountability. They have to put their money where their PR is.
"They like to say that they do nothing but good - that they're concerned about alternative energy and health care. But if they're so concerned about the public internet then they need be a model company when it comes to engaging the political apparatus here in Washington and around the world."
When we emailed Bob Boorstin, he provided a canned statement apologizing for the incident as well as a letter he sent Consumer Watchdog back in November attempting to address its privacy concerns.
"We have meetings constantly with groups that disagree with us on any number of issues. In fact, we engaged for months with Consumer Watchdog and sent them detailed responses to their concerns about user privacy," the statement reads.
"But the group's recent actions - and in particular its baseless accusation that we were lobbying Congress for the right to sell patients' medical records - led us to believe that they are more interested in attracting media attention than in engaging in an open and honest dialog. Nonetheless, I made a mistake in sending information about the group's activities to the Rose Foundation for which I apologize. Google supports the right of anyone or any institution to fund whatever group or project they choose."
But according to Jamie Court and the Rose Foundation's Tim Little, Boorstin hasn't apologized directly to them. ®