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Right or wrong, it’s time for Google to disclose its relationship with government

eric-schmidt-and-barack-obama

By Simon Davies

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has repeated claims that Google is up to its neck in the machinations of the White House Administration. This claim raises some critically important questions.

How close is Google to the government, and how does Google benefit from having ingratiated itself with government interests?

Speaking this week via video link to the 19th International Symposium on Electronic Art Assange warned “Google wants to ingratiate itself in the national security complex of the US and [establish] itself as a new geopolitical visionary.”. He continued “Google and the State Department work closely together”, with the ad giant “doing stuff the government and CIA can’t do”.

These comments echo Assange’s withering critique of a new book by Google’s Eric Schmidt and former US State Department adviser Jared Cohen.

“Google, which started out as an expression of independent Californian graduate student culture — a decent, humane and playful culture — has, as it encountered the big, bad world, thrown its lot in with traditional Washington power elements, from the State Department to the National Security Agency.”

Noam Chomsky expressed similar concerns about Google last week, arguing that the company had become a major menace because of its complicity with the US government’s hunger to seize personal information.

It may be tempting to dismiss Assange’s claims, but few can deny that the issues are valid. How close is Google to the government, and how does Google benefit from having ingratiated itself with government interests? This issue of course applies to varying degrees to industry in general, but Google appears to be particularly close to multiple governments.

There’s a long and ignoble history of companies embedding themselves in state administration and becoming fused with public policy.

Such a relationship would not be a precedent. There’s a long and ignoble history of companies – particularly those in the oil, primary industry, banking and automotive sectors – embedding themselves in state administration and becoming fused with public policy. This trend is fuelled by an increasingly accommodating revolving door between private and public sector employment.

This is a dangerous business, and the public usually ends up the loser in such a relationship. There’s no question that in recent times the advertising and information industries have moved closer to government, and this trend needs to be fully exposed.

These questions are timely. Recent revelations over the NSA and PRISM have put the public on red alert over the relationship between corporations and government. At its most benign level, companies are used by government as a means of cheap collection and storage of data. However the new claims move the issue from one where companies are outsourced storage facilities, to one where companies are partners in state policy.

This isn’t the same as companies having managerial relationships with people who happen to be involved in agencies of mutual interest. Most people on the boards of major corporations are two degrees of separation from someone at the top of a three-letter agency. This goes without saying in such a rarified atmosphere.

Are we handing our information to a company that will deal with it on open terms, or are we dealing with a covert agent of government?

The problem is where the company has lost its way and has become a secretive and active partner in government. That’s something we should all lose sleep over.

Some companies have already adopted a transparency policy in which they will publish data relating to disclosures to government. That’s to be applauded, and Google in particular has made capital out of its access reports. However there’s a world of difference between a transparency report and a transparency agenda. A transparency agenda would compel the company to be open about its operational relations with government – in the same way that politicians in some countries are required to disclose their relationships with companies and lobbyists.

The time has come for Google to be open about its relationship with governments. We need to know where we stand. Are we handing our information to a company that will deal with it on open terms, or are we dealing with a covert agent of government?

The public needs to determine whether Google is trustworthy. I want to see the company opened up to proper scrutiny – not just at the transparency level that it chooses to set for itself.