Google: new concerns raised about political influence by senior ‘revolving door’ jobs

New concerns have been raised about the political influence of Google after research found at least 80 “revolving door” moves in the past decade – instances where the online giant took on government employees and European governments employed Google staff.

The research was carried out by the Google Transparency Project, an initiative run by the Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a US organisation that scrutinises corporations and politicians. The CfA has suggested that the moves are a result of Google seeking to boost its influence in Europe as the company seeks to head off antitrust action and moves to tighten up on online privacy.

In the UK, Google has hired people from Downing Street, the Home Office, the Treasury, the Department for Education and the Department for Transport. Overall, the company has hired at least 28 British public officials since 2005.

Those hired have included Sarah Hunter, a senior policy adviser to Tony Blair when prime minister, who became head of public policy for Google in the UK. Hunter is now head of policy for Google X, the arm that deals with new businesses such as drones and self-driving cars.

In 2013 Google hired Verity Harding, a special adviser to former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. Harding is now policy manager for Google DeepMind, its artificial intelligence arm, which recently secured a contract with the NHS.

Overall, the research suggests that Google, now part of parent company Alphabet Inc, has hired at least 65 former government officials from within the European Union since 2005. These include Tomas Gulbinas, a former ambassador-at-large for the Lithuanian government, and Georgios Mavros, a former adviser to a French member of the European parliament: both became Google lobbyists.

During the same period, 15 Google employees were appointed to government positions in Europe, gaining what the CfA claims are “valuable contacts at the heart of the decision-making process”.

In the UK, appointments include that of Baroness Joanna Shields, a former managing director for Google, who was made minister for internet safety, and Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, who David Cameron appointed to his business advisory council. Dame Margaret Hodge, former head of the Commons’ public accounts committee, told the CfA that the appointments were part of a deliberate strategy by Google to gain influence in the public sphere. “I have absolutely no doubt it’s part of their strategy,” Hodge said. “Google deliberately nurtures that culture, and I have absolutely no doubt that they see it as strategically important to be as close as they can to government.”

She added that, unlike other large American companies, such as Apple, “one gets the impression that [government] ministers are in awe of Google”.

The European commission has formally accused Google of abusing its market dominance by systematically favouring its own online comparison shopping service. It has also expressed the view that Google has abused its dominant position by imposing restrictions on manufacturers of electronic devices using Google’s Android operating system, and on mobile network operators.

According to the CfA, Google dramatically stepped up its revolving door hires in Europe in 2011, shortly after the commission launched its first investigation into alleged antitrust violations by the company.

A total of 18 “revolving door hires” were made in 2011 – more than double the previous year’s figure and more than three times the number in any other year covered by the analysis. Google hired staff from a host of European state bodies, including Poland’s ministry of economy, Nato, the European parliament, the British embassy to the US, the Lithuanian ministry of foreign affairs, and Spain’s justice ministry.

Anne Weismann, executive director of the CfA, said that the company was following a strategy it had successfully employed in the US. “Google’s influence in Washington today is unmatched,” she said. “The company regularly spends more on lobbying than any other, and our analysis found that Google’s lobbyists enjoy unrivalled access to the White House. On average, Google executives visit the White House more than once a week. At the same time, we have documented more than 250 “revolving door” moves between Google and the US government. Now Google appears to be trying to replicate its Washington influence machine in Europe, where it is facing mounting threats from policymakers on a variety of issues.”

Questions have been raised about who funds the Google Transparency Project. The CfA declined to say, and this prompted suspicion that it is bankrolled by rival media and internet companies keen to check the company’s power.

Supporters of Google say that it needs to hire people with policy expertise because European governments regularly seek its views on a range of issues including terrorism, child protection and copyright. Many of the visits its staff make to governments are at the requests of politicians.

A Google spokesman said: “European politicians have many questions for Google and about the internet. We’re working hard to answer those questions, helping policymakers understand our business and the opportunity for European businesses to grow online.”

But Weismann said the scale of Google’s influence was almost unprecedented. “The revolving door isn’t unique to Google,” Weismann said. “What’s surprising is how aggressively the company has hired public officials, and how little attention it has received.”

In the UK, Google has been moving into a raft of new areas now being heavily promoted by the government. “We need to rethink how we view Google,” said Tamasin Cave of the campaign group Spinwatch. “Its not a search engine, it’s a political beast that has captured the attention of our policy-makers. Most worryingly in health and education, where privatisation through technology is gathering pace. Even if our politicians have bought into its thinking, we as a public should be asking how Google’s involvement in the NHS and schools will impact them, what are the consequences, and who benefits: us or Google?”

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