March 11th, 2011
Google’s Tarnished Chrome
Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, cochairmen of the Bipartisan Privacy Caucus and longtime members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, don’t agree on much. But after Google was caught last month collecting Social Security information from children who took part in its annual doodling contest, the lawmakers set aside their differences. In a scathing joint statement, they called the action “unacceptable.”
The rebuke was just the latest in a series from lawmakers in both parties, and it highlights a deeper problem for the online giant: Its star is falling fast in Washington. Long the darling of the technology community, Google had carefully cultivated an image of corporate responsibility with its “Don’t Be Evil” motto and its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But in recent years, the company has distanced itself not only from the motto but also the principles behind it, say experts who monitor its business practices.
And members of Congress are noticing. In recent months, they’ve criticized Google for its proposed acquisition of an online travel-reservations company; a privacy breach involving the collection of unsecured wireless data; and its short-lived effort to circumvent tough new Internet regulations. “There is an awareness that Google just isn’t exactly the warm, fuzzy, cuddly, little start-up that everybody loved [and] that we thought it was,” said John Simpson, director of the Inside Google project for Consumer Watchdog, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit and fierce critic of the company. “It’s such an all-pervasive force in everyone’s lives that it’s coming under scrutiny—and deservedly so.”
Google’s presence in Washington has never been stronger. Even though it didn’t have a D.C. office until 2008, the company spent nearly $5.2 million on federal lobbying last year, according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. That amount dwarfs the $2.2 million that Yahoo spent last year and puts Google in a money chase with Microsoft, which shelled out $6.9 million.