In January, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sponsored a conference called PrivacyCon, reports Sam Biddle of the The Intercept, where most of the presenters had financial ties to Google. This is yet more evidence of our observation in March that top FTC officials, led by FTC Chair Edith Ramirez, act like Google employees. According to Biddle:
Google’s ties to PrivacyCon are pervasive enough to warrant interrogation. As a case study in how pervasive and well-concealed this type of influence has become, PrivacyCon is hard to beat.
Authors of a whopping 13 out of 19 papers presented at the conference and 23 out of 41 speakers have financial ties to Google. Only two papers included disclosure of an ongoing or past financial connection to Google.
Back in March, we called the FTC/Google relationship the most extreme example of “regulatory capture” that we had seen in Washington in recent years. First identified by Nobel laureate George Stigler in 1971, it’s when a government agency tasked with protecting the public interest instead acts to the benefit of an industry or particular company.
What caught our attention was a March 9 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee where Ramirez falsely claimed that her staff had recommended against anti-trust action against Google, when in fact, they had. On March 23, NLPC Chairman Ken Boehm wrote Ramirez to ask her to explain the “contradictions” in her sworn testimony.
The issue first came to the fore in March 2015 when the Wall Street Journal, based on a document leaked to the newspaper, reported that the FTC staff had recommended that antitrust action be taken against Google, only to have it torpedoed by the Commission.
Ramirez’ mails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that she takes her direction from Google. Four days after the Journal article appeared, a senior Google lobbyist named Johanna Shelton emailed Ramirez’ chief of staff saying she was “deeply troubled” and “puzzled” by the lack of FTC response. Two days later, Ramirez issued a statement seeking to discredit the Journal report.
This is not the first time an administration official has been caught doing favors for Google. In 2010, NLPC successfully demanded the resignation of White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin. NLPC had obtained his emails under FOIA that showed that he had provided information to Google, where he was formerly a top executive.
Biddle’s account of PrivacyCon also sheds light on another phenomenon known as “influence laundering,” the bankrolling of academics who appear to provide an authoritative and even independent voice in support of Google’s corporate goals. Google’s “influence laundering” also extends to the public policy community. For instance, Freedom House has built a solid reputation over the years documenting human rights abuses worldwide.
It now releases an annual “Net Freedom Index” every year, which ranks countries on their level of Internet freedom. Google funds the Index. It is even released each year at Google headquarters.
In November 2015, NLPC issued a detailed critique of the Index. The rating criteria parallel Google’s business priorities. The Index is compiled by many individuals who have financial ties to Google. The section on the United States was drafted by the New America Foundation (NAF), whose Chairman is none other than Eric Schmidt, who is executive chairman of Alphabet, Inc., the holding company for Google.
The Net Index’s most glaring shortcoming, however, is that it does not include “viewpoint discrimination” as a criterion. In May, Facebook was accused of omitting conservative and libertarian sources from its “trending news” section. On May 19, NLPC demanded that Freedom House include “viewpoint discrimination” as a criterion and to decline any further financial support from Google.
Google makes money by invading our privacy. It is supposed to be the government’s job to protect it. Most people would regard a government conference on privacy dominated by Google-funded academics to be a joke. Maybe it should be renamed PrivacyConJob. But regulatory capture is never funny. The public always loses.