Pando

Google is the biggest corporate lobbyist in America now, says new Public Citizen report

By James Robinson , written on November 13, 2014

From The News Desk

I’ve been in Boston all week. I had to tell my mother where I was, but not Google. Its seamlessness in switching up my Google ad results, changing its suggestions to me of places to visit and ads to click on, was instantaneous.

Google knew where I was going, as I was making the trip. We’re used to this by now. It’s justified under the umbrella of modern convenience. But should it be?

This morning, a new Public Citizen report, “Mission Creep-y: Google is Quietly Becoming One of the Nation’s Most Powerful Political Forces While Expanding Its Information-Collecting Empire” came across my desk. It doesn’t break news. But it is an exhausting catalog of Google’s powerful information gathering apparatus, its missteps, and its massive social ambition.

When you put the isolated pieces together, it can kind of make you choke on your breakfast.

At a consumer level, Google is all over you. Its search algorithm takes in 200 different variables about you, pulling in information it gleans from your use of all of its products: Maps, YouTube, Gmail, and more. These are services you use, like, all of the time that can reveal very personal things. Since 2012, Google has made it its stated policy to track you as one user across all of its services, no matter what device you’re using. (This “comingling” of information, e.g. search history with chat transcripts, resulted in several lawsuits from privacy groups.)

Through its acquisition of DoubleClick Google knows what websites you were on when you saw a certain ad. Like all companies, it tracks your web history by placing a cookie in your browser. But because of the prevalence of Google Analytics and DoubleClick across the web now, once Google has identified you, it’s really, really difficult for you to ever be out of the company’s sight. The value of DoubleClick to Google cannot be underestimated. Google paid twice as much for DoubleClick in 2007 as it did for YouTube in 2006. The company is determined to not be any less efficient in tracking you on mobile either, linking tablet and smartphone use by giving every phone that uses the Google store an individual identifier.

Chillingly, none of the privacy experts could map the full entirety of just how much Google knows about consumers. But given its willingness to put together different pieces of data about you from different services, along with its new products and acquisitions -- Google Now, Emu, Hangouts, Wallet, Next, Dropcam, Skybox, Google Glass and so on -- the granularity of what it can discern is accelerating quickly.

I won’t spare you a complete rewrite of the Public Citizen report (seriously, go read it for yourself) but the alarm bells go well past consumer tracking. There are the constant attempts to prevent consumers from opting out of being monitored, its massive breaches of the public trust, its role as a government informant, and, as Pando’s own Yasha Levine has reported on, its growing military ties.

As Public Citizen outlines, Google circa 2014 is a completely politicized organization. As a company that makes almost all of its revenue from selling advertisements, the currency that keeps it afloat is detailed information about us. And it has been naked in its pursuit of that and unafraid of protecting its own interest. The Public Citizen report details how Google has spent $18.2 million on federal lobbying in 2014 so far, more than any other company. In this year’s election cycle, Google’s PAC outspent Goldman Sachs. We associate Wall Street with having some powerful interests to protect, but Silicon Valley is getting pretty valuable too. Since 2012, no company has invested more in lobbying than Google. Moreover, a revolving door has opened up between Google and the federal government -- 81 of its 102 lobbyists hired in 2014 previously held government jobs.

I can hear the justifications already. With Google Search you’re never left not knowing anything! Gmail is excellent! You get so much storage that you never have to delete another email! Maps means you never get lost!

But if you do yourself one favor today, read the Public Citizen report. It is further proof that the double-edged sword of modern convenience is getting much sharper.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]