Using its Wealth, Google Has Become a DC Lobbying Juggernaut—And They Still Know Everything About Us

Google knows everything about its users, but it’s not very transparent about its political influence.

Photo Credit: Ahmad Faizal Yahya / Shutterstock.com

Google has become synonymous with tech buses, San Francisco gentrification and its involvement in NSA surveillance. It's not very popular among its neighbors in the Silicon Valley, or with privacy advocates. But now there’s another reason to look at Google critically— it’s become a lobbying juggernaut, using its vast wealth to push its political agenda in Washington, D.C. and in every state.

Public Citizen recently released a 60-page report, titled "Mission Creep-y: Google Is Quietly Becoming One of the Nation's Most Powerful Political Forces While Expanding Its Information-Collection Empire.” The report details how Google went from the research project of two Stanford grad students to what is arguably the world’s biggest information technology empire, and how it amassed a giant information-collection empire and is now gaining significant political interest.

Growing Political Influence

According to the report, Google “is the biggest lobbying spending corporation in the United States. In 2014, the firm has commissioned a force of more than 100 lobbyists, about 80% of whom are former federal government employees, to do its bidding in Washington, D.C., and has deployed agents in numerous states to grease the path for approvals for its groundbreaking technologies and keep regulators at bay."

While Google knows practically everything about its users, it’s not very transparent about its political influence and lobbying power. But there is enough information to piece together the puzzle. Using data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the report found that during the first three quarters of 2014, the information technology behemoth spent the most on federal lobbying among corporations, some $13.6 million. By the end of 2014, that figure should reach $18 million.

In 2004, Google did not even have a political action committee, but its political spending has soared to the point where it now surpasses Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs. And Google makes sure its money is well spent, using seasoned government veterans who know the tricks of getting favorable legislation passed and blocking unfavorable actions.

Google also lobbies on the state level, pushing for business ventures like driverless cars, Google Glasses and its eponymous search engine. In Nevada and California, Google successfully lobbied to legalize the operation of self-driving cars on public roads. During the 2010 election, Google donated a total of $64,000 to the political campaigns of 36 California State Assembly and Senate candidates, along with $25,900 each to Gov. Jerry Brown and his opponent in the election, Meg Whitman.

But that number is nothing compared to what Google spent on this year’s election. The report says that Google’s PAC, called NetPAC, had spent more than $1.6 million, splitting its political contributions evenly among Democrats and Republicans. This spreading the wealth across the political spectrum shows that Google was “seeking to accrue influence rather than advance their values." This is also a common practice of large financial firms and defense corporations.

Aside from direct spending on lobbying and political campaigns, Google also has softer forms of political power. Google accrues political influence by "having employees enter high positions in the federal government, hosting events for elites, and funding and supporting a diverse array of non-profits." The report notes that "[m]any of the White House's most prominent tech-related positions in recent years have been filled by former Google executives and employees."

The Nexus of Google

In 1996, Stanford computer science graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin started an experimental project called Backrub in which they "intended to count, qualify and map the Internet," says the Public Citizen report. "They accomplished this by tracing the estimated 10 million documents then on the web back to the links that brought people to them—and sorting those links by importance and popularity, based on how many sites linked to those sites," it says. Then they "used this information to create a search engine to lead people to the information most relevant to their searches.” This algorithm, known as PageRank, provided users with more appropriate results than AltaVista and Excite, two of the more powerful search engines at that time.  

The next year, Page and Brin rechristened their project as Google, based on the number "googol" (1 followed by 100 zeroes). Soon, Google graduated from a research project to a business and grew rapidly. It went from handling only 10,000 searches a day in 1998 to more than 200 million by the time it went public in 2004. It’s growth continues to be staggering and by last year, it was handling billions of searches a day, and two-thirds of all searches throughout the world. Its the most visited website in 62 countries, including the United States, Canada, Brazil, India, Australia and most of Western Europe. It’s the second most visited site, next to Facebook, in 36 more. Its video portal, YouTube, is the second most visited site in another 14 countries.

Besides a robust search engine, Google provides other Internet services, such as its Chrome browser, Gmail, Google Maps, and Chrome and Android operating systems. And as the Google search engine is the default home page for many Android and Chrome products, "they drive traffic to Google's search pages, and therefore the advertisements that provide the bulk of its revenue."

And therein lies the heart of Google's business model—selling its users' data to advertisers. This model has worked very well for Google. Today, the tech giant’s revenue is almost $68 billion over the 12 months ending in September 2014. Profits in 2013 were $12.9 billion. Google collected a third of ad revenue among all companies in 2013.

The Growth of Google's Data-Mining Empire

Google does not charge users to use its services; its users are the product it sells to advertisers. Moreover, Google collects information about its users to help maximize the effectiveness of its ad campaigns, studying them to discern their interests, needs and activities. They also discern demographic data through various means. So the ads that are served to Google users are well matched to their demographic profile, search engine queries, page clicks, and other online behavior.

Google collects information on its users in a variety of ways. Its "software robots" patrol the web for pages to include in search results. Aside from ranking sites, Google personalizes search results for users based on information it gleaned from "its customers' use of other services in Google's growing constellation of information-based product lines."

To generate revenue, Google uses the program AdWords whose "algorithms choose where to place advertisements based on the subject of the ad and the text of the sites in its advertising network." Google tracks users' interests through cookies that websites place in a visitor's browser. According to the report, "Cookies enable Google to learn visitors' browsing history, what YouTube videos a user watches, what a user searches for how, how a user interacts with ads or search results, and more."

And knowing something about each of its users as individuals, Google personalizes search engine results. Two people simultaneously searching the same words won’t necessarily get the same results; they’ll get the results Google’s algorithms have chosen for them.

But Public Citizen says that Google might not be doing this for the altruistic goal of improving the user experience. Instead it appears that it may be reordering the results to tout certain products with the hopes of increasing profit. Competitors such as Microsoft (which has the rival Bing search engine) “have complained that Google promoted its own services for videos, shopping, maps and more above those of competing companies."

The complaints eventually prompted a Federal Trade Commission investigation, which ultimately found no wrongdoing by Google.

Google has also used its popular Gmail email program to profile users. The product, launched in 2004, “was tracking the content of email messages in order to deliver relevant ads to its users." As a web-based email product, all messages are stored on Google’s servers or in the cloud making the content available to Google for data mining.

Through its different services, Google can swiftly gobble up and combine its users' information without little public knowledge of its depth. Even privacy experts are unaware of how much Google knows about individuals. This worries consumer advocate John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog:

"If you never subscribe to one of Google's services, and all you ever do is search, then it's not entirely clear to me that they would be able to figure out your name and specific stuff about you. But they would be able to identify your IP address and that sort of thing, which most people would consider identifiable information. But if you do stuff while logged in, which they encourage you to do, then they know much more about you generally. And they're able to put cookies down so the cookies save on your server, and they're able to know things about you when you're not logged in. But it's not clear how much they know about everybody, and they're not terribly forthcoming in that regard—that's one of the biggest problems."

Many of Google’s products have melded into Google Now, an Android app that combines many aspects of a user’s life, including maps and directions, email, search, contact information, news, account information and more. It’s “at the forefront of predictive technology,” according to the report, using gathered data “as a kind of personal assistant and provide users with reminders, updates, suggestions and more.”

And it gets more alarming. Last August, Google purchased the messaging app Emu, which "scans the contents of text messages and makes suggestions based on what the participant discuss—for example, displaying nearby restaurants if a user mentions lunch."

In May 2011, Google released its digital payment service called Google Wallet. It apparently helps users transfer money but also makes it easy for Google to "gain financial information about people," such as how wealthy they are and what they buy. The service collects a person's credit card number, location, transaction information, description of purchases, and more.

But Wallet has not been a big success story. "Some experts have pinned Wallet's lack of success on wariness from banks about supporting Google Wallet under the conditions Google wants: that banks feed data back to Google on what users purchased, and other personal information," says the report. Its rival, Apple Pay, on the other hand, "says it will not store your credit card number or information on what you bought, where you bought it, or how much you paid. All Apple's information will be encrypted, which Wallet's privacy policy does not promise."

Perhaps Google's most infamous product line is Google Glass, a computing device users wear over their eyes like glasses. Along with a small heads-up display screen near the eye, the device also has a camera and microphone, which can record the user's environment. If a person is near a Google Glass user, their privacy can be violated, possibly without that person even knowing it.

The public overwhelmingly dislikes the concept of Google Glass. In April, 2014 a poll found that 72% of respondents cited privacy issues as their biggest reasons for not wanting to wear the product.

“Respondents also expressed concerns about the possibility of hackers accessing personal data from Glass and revealing their personal information, including their whereabouts,” according to the report. Some people are so adamantly opposed to having their likenesses scanned on Google Glass screens they’ve dubbed those who wear the eyewear as “Glassholes.”

Google Glass hatred has expressed itself in popular culture and everyday life. Google Glass and its wearers were ridiculed by comedian Jason Jones in a Daily Show segment. In San Francisco, two Glass wearers, on separate occasions, were attacked while wearing the glasses, presumably by people concerned they were being recorded.

Other acquisitions include the home thermostat and fire alarm company Nest, home camera company Dropcam (which Google may use for facial recognition) and aerospace surveillance company Skybox. Google’s Chrome operating system is put on laptop computers produced by several companies, such as Samsung and HP, that rely on cloud computing to store documents and data. Chromebook’s are becoming an increasingly popular laptop, especially for students. According to the report, they're now being used by some 22% of school districts in the U.S.

Is There Any Escaping Google?

Google has stifled users' ability to dodge information collection in order to protect its bottom line. Last August Google removed the privacy app Disconnect Mobile from its Android Play store "saying it violated a policy prohibited software that interferes with other apps."

The Disconnect app’s primary function was to stop apps from using ads to collect data on the activity of the phone user. And while Disconnect was in part designed to stop cookies from spreading malware and to foil spying attempts by hackers and possibly the government, it also hampered Google’s collection of data.

Public Citizen says that Google's information-collection activities are putting people's data into the wrong hands, especially intelligence agencies. As revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the NSA, through its PRISM program, has direct access to Google's systems and can collect users' data, such as email content, search history, file transfers, and live chats. Google, in fact has deepties to the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and defense and intelligence contractors.

Google's entire business model relies on continually collecting, storing, analyzing, and selling users' data to advertisers and other third parties. Privacy hurts the company's bottom line because personal information is so profitable. In 2013, Google wrote in a brief filed to the U.S. District Court of Northern California that a person sending email through a Gmail account "has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties." Why? Because "providers like Google must scan the emails sent to and from their systems as part of providing their services."

But Google has made some reforms. In light of the NSA revelations, the company announced it would allow users to encrypt with PGP encryption their email messages, if they choose to do so. PGP encryption protects content but not sender or recipient identities. However, according to the report, Google’s encryption reforms “appear limited to protecting users from having their information protected from hackers, not security agencies.” The emails, while encrypted when sent over the Internet, are still scanned and stored on Google’s services to help serve its marketing efforts. So, if Google retains the ability to read decrypted information, many security agencies that could request this same information.

As Google grows as a company, becomes more pervasive in our everyday lives, and exerts more political influence for its own interest, the more Google will have to be scrutinized.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Adam Hudson is a journalist, writer and photographer. His work has appeared in Truthout, AlterNet, teleSUR English, the Nation and other publications.