Numbers crunched by the Campaign for Accountability and the Intercept show 169 Google employees have met with 182 government officials in the White House.
The meetings took place at least 427 times. The data used spans from Obama’s first month in office in 2009 until October 2015, and includes government meetings with representatives of Google-affiliated companies Tomorrow Ventures and Civis Analytics.
The Google employee with the most visits is the company’s head of public policy, Johanna Shelton, who paid the White House 128 visits.
Google claims it’s entirely normal for its representatives and affiliates to make hundreds of White House visits, to discuss numerous topics of interest, such as patent reform, education, Internet censorship, cyber security, and how an all-powerful search engine could tip a close presidential election by fooling around with news feeds and query results.
Another topic of great interest to Google is the FCC’s proposed “set-top box” regulation, which the Daily Mail notes has actually been denounced by an AT&T executive as a “Google proposal.”
That’s because the plan that would force cable and satellite providers to unlock the boxes that decode their content, allowing companies like Google to sell their boxes to customers, who are currently obliged to lease them from the providers.
Whatever the merits or shortcomings of this plan might be, it’s clearly of great interest to Google, which could suddenly find itself in a position to muscle into a billion-dollar market, gain a new method of harvesting valuable data about consumers, and maybe even begin undermining the business model of cable and satellite providers.
The Intercept refers to the set-top box legislation as just the latest example of Google’s White House clout coming in handy, also mentioning the way a presidential commission squashed the U.S. version of an antitrust complaint currently vexing the tech giant in Europe.
“In just the past few years, Google has provided diplomatic assistance to the administration through expanding internet access in Cuba; collaborated with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to bring Google Fiber into public housing; used Google resources to monitor droughts in real time; and even captured 360-degree views of White House interiors,” The Intercept writes, portraying the exceptionally close relationship between the Obama presidency and Google as a mutually beneficial relationship without parallel. Google even helped bail the Administration out after the disastrous launch of the ObamaCare website.
No matter what Google might say to downplay the importance of that relationship, The Intercept notes that no other company has a remotely comparable White House presence.
The Intercept describes Google as practically becoming the White House’s IT Help Desk, which is both logical and troubling, because “the government is supposed to be regulating Google as a private business, not continually asking it for favors.”
No blatant charge of corruption is made, but that’s the problem: in the relationship between the White House and tech giants, it’s hard to say where cooperation ends and corruption begins. Certainly if we were talking about oil industry giants frequenting a Republican White House, and making equally plausible claims about their expertise in energy matters being invaluable, the media wouldn’t buy it for a second.
“When the federal government and a private company share the same worldview, get the same insights from the same groups of people, the policy drift can occur with nobody explicitly choosing the direction. It just seems like the right thing to do,” as The Intercept adroitly puts it. “And there is no doubt that Google’s rise in Washington has coincided with public policy that is friendlier to the company.”
The big issue transfixing much of American politics at the moment is corruption, under a variety of names: inequality, privilege, cronyism, exploitation… and yet, a gigantic corporation with wide-ranging global interests can maintain a cozy relationship with the President that is only now being closely examined, with less than a year to go before the end of the presidency.
“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. These datasets show how Google has enjoyed unparalleled access to the Obama Administration at a time when the company’s influence on government, public policies, and our lives is incomparable to any corporation in history,” said Campaign for Accountability Executive Director Anne Weismann about her organization’s project to track Google’s influence on government.