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Consumer Watchdog Blasts Google’s Schmidt

January 27, 2011

Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has focused much of its attention in recent years on Google’s privacy practices, debuted its new animated satire — “Mr. Schmidt Goes to Washington” — on the streets of Washington DC, as part of its case for why Congress should call Google CEO Eric Schmidt to testify under oath about the Wi-Spy scandal and other online privacy issues, and also said the company’s close ties to the National Security Agency should be investigated.

The animation is being shown on a mobile digital advertising truck equipped with stereo sound that will travel for one week across Capitol Hill, downtown, and through busy District thoroughfares. The animation shows Google’s CEO testifying before Congress using real-life, creepy quotes from Schmidt about privacy to make the case for why Congress should question him.

The advocacy group, in a letter sent out Monday, also asked Representative Darrell Issa, the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to investigate the relationship between Google and several government agencies.

In the letter, the group asks Issa to investigate contracts at several US agencies for Google technology and services, the “secretive” relationship between Google and the NSA, and the company’s use of a NASA airfield in California.

Federal agencies have also taken “insufficient” action in response to revelations last year that Google Street View cars were collecting data from open Wi-Fi connections they passed, Consumer Watchdog said in the letter.

“We believe Google has inappropriately benefited from close ties to the administration,” the letter said. “Google is most consumers’ gateway to the Internet. Nonetheless, it should not get special treatment and access because of a special relationship with the administration.”

Consumer Watchdog may have luck with Issa. In July, he sent a letter to Google raising concerns that White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin, former head of global public policy for Google, had inappropriate email contact with company employees.

A spokesperson for Google questioned Consumer Watchdog’s objectivity. Some groups have questioned the group’s ties to Microsoft, and its criticisms of online privacy efforts have also zeroed in on Google, with the group rarely mentioning other sites, including Microsoft, Facebook, and other Web-based companies in the past two years.

“This is just the latest in a long list of press stunts from an organization that admits to working closely with our competitors,” said the Google spokesperson according to PC World.

But Consumer Watchdog receives no funding from Microsoft or any other competitor of Google, John Simpson, consumer advocate with the group, told PC World. “We don’t have any relationship with Microsoft at all “¦ We don’t take any of their money,” he said.

Simpson said the group has decided to focus on Google’s privacy practices because the company’s services serve as a gateway to the Internet for many people. If the group can push Google, “without a doubt the dominant Internet company,” to change its privacy practices, other companies will follow suit, he said.

“Google’s held itself to be the company that says its motto is, ‘don’t be evil,’ and they also advocate openness for everyone else,” said Simpson. “We’re trying to hold them to their own word.”

In January 2009, Consumer Watchdog claimed that Google was trying to get Congress to allow the sale of electronic health records. Google said those allegations were “100 percent false and unfounded.”

In September, the advocacy group bought space on a 540-square-foot video screen in New York’s Times Square, showing a video criticizing Google’s privacy practices. That video, titled “Don’t be evil?,” got about 400,000 views since its Superscreen debut.

In April, advocacy officials called for the US Department of Justice to break up Google. They appeared at a press conference with a representative of the Microsoft- and Amazon-funded Open Book Alliance.

Consumer Watchdog’s latest complaints about the relationship of Google and the Obama administration are outlined in a 32-page report.

The report questions a decision by NASA allowing Google executives to use its Moffett Federal Airfield near Google headquarters. Although H211, a company controlled by Google top executives, pays NASA rent, they enjoy access to the airfield that other companies or groups don’t have, Simpson said.

The paper also questions Google contracts with the US Department of Defense and other federal agencies, suggesting that, in some cases, Google contracts were fast-tracked. It also questions Google’s relationship with the NSA and calls for the company to be more open about what consumer information is shares with the spy agency.

“I understand the NSA is a super-secret spook organization,” he said. “But given Google’s very special situation where it possesses so much personal data about people, I think that there ought to be a little more openness about what precisely goes on between the two.”

“Google spent $5.2 million lobbying last year ““ up from $4.03 million in 2009 ““ to convince Congress that nothing is wrong. The company has repeatedly refused to answer questions about its activities ““ making no response to Consumer Watchdog reports, rejecting multiple invitations appear at our recent privacy conference with officials representing the Federal Trade Commission and Commerce Department, and even failing to comply with a subpoena by the state attorneys general,” said Simpson. “Clearly Google’s executives won’t answer tough questions until they come from Congress.”

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