Lacking in Transparency: The Google Transparency Project

In April 2016, the Campaign for Accountability (CfA) launched the Google Transparency Project (GTP), aimed at creating an online resource for the public to explore the relationship between Google and the government—and the impact of this relationship on American lives. In a statement, CfA Executive Director Anne Weisman said, “Google has long been a strong advocate of transparency in government, business, and even users’ private lives. It has not, however, been transparent about its own dealings with the government.” While other issues targeted by the CfA appear to have a more industry-wide spotlight, the Google Transparency Project focuses specifically on Google’s relationship with the government and its influence on public policy.

Major reports released by the GTP thus far examine the scope of Google’s access to the White House during Obama’s presidency as well as the suggested ‘revolving door’ shared between Google employees and those of the White House. Data compiled in the reports is accessible for public review and is accompanied by analysis from the CfA.

On the surface, this effort seems like it would be cut-and-dry in the public’s interest. Google is the second largest company in the world by market capitalization (second only to Apple Inc.), and it spent over $16 million on lobbying in 2014. Not a meaningful number to Google, but certainty a meaningful number in the lobbying world. $16 million in 2014 puts Google just below Comcast and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in lobbying dollars spent.

Knowing what goes on in the lobbying world and between government and business is critical, but the GTP has a transparency problem of its own. As Fortune’s Jeff John Roberts noted back in April, “The folks running the Google Transparency Project won’t say who is paying for it, which is odd for a group devoted to transparency.” Chief among Roberts’ suspects for funding the watchdog was Oracle America Inc., which at the time was in court seeking nearly $9 billion in damages from Google for its use of copyrighted Java APIs in the Android operating system. The timing was certainly suspicious, with the Google Transparency Project being launched and broadcast to reporters in late April just before Oracle and Google were set to begin another District Court trial in May.

Last week, Roberts followed up with a second article in which he confirmed his suspicions. Oracle’s Senior Vice President Gen Glueck told Roberts, “Oracle is absolutely a contributor (one of many) to the Transparency Project. This is important information for the public to know. It is 100 percent public records and accurate.” This raises somewhat of an ethical question that juxtaposes the need for transparency with the motives driving its acquisition. Knowing the true nature of Google’s relationship with the government is important, but when the competition is funding it, what does it say about watchdogs like the GTP that claim to be in the public interest?

Knowing that Oracle is funding the GTP doesn’t necessarily negate any of the relevance or value the project can create. The more information the American public has on large lobbyists influencing public policy, the better. But when groups like the CfA take such particular interest in a company like Google, or any company for that matter, they should be clear from the outset where the funding is coming from. This way the public, whose interests are supposed to be paramount, can make informed decisions about what to do with the information they are receiving.

Quandary Peak Research

Based in Los Angeles, Quandary Peak Research provides software litigation consulting and expert witness services. We rapidly analyze large code bases, design documents, performance and usage statistics, and other data to answer technical questions about the structure and behavior of software systems.

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