Google’s privacy ‘victory’ did not happen by accident

February 24, 2012

The White House on Thursday unveiled Web privacy guidelines that have been viewed as a ‘win’ for tech titans like Google. But the ‘victory’ was no accident for the search engine giant. The Post’s Cecilia Kang reports:

Once disdainful of the lobbying tactics of other companies, Google’s Beltway operations have become nearly indistinguishable from the most powerful corporations that line K Street. Last year, it doubled the amount it spent on lobbying to $10 million and doubled the size of its employee political donation fund to $836,000.

These efforts have come as regulators are increasing scrutiny of the company’s activities. Google is facing federal probes on antitrust and privacy that could greatly shape its future. Next week, Google will roll out a privacy policy that will enable it to build more sophisticated profiles of its customers, a move lawmakers say should be investigated.

Google capped the reinvention of its Washington operations Thursday by announcing that former congresswoman Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) will head its D.C. staff. Molinari has made public appearances on behalf of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. After she left Congress in 1997, Molinari became a registered lobbyist and represented the Association of American Railroads, mortgage giant Freddie Mac and Verizon Communications, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

“She will help lawmakers better understand our company, how it works and what its impact is,” said a Google official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Google officials declined comment publicly on the company’s lobbying operations.

Google has hired several Republican political veterans over the past year, trying to defuse criticism by lawmakers that the firm is too cozy with the Obama administration. Chairman Eric Schmidt is a White House economic adviser, and Google’s former head of global public policy, Andrew McLaughlin, was Obama’s deputy chief technology officer.

Web privacy advocates are saying that the White House’s guidelines are a ‘huge step forward.’ Bloomberg reports

An Obama administration Internet privacy initiative marks the best chance for setting U.S. standards to shield personal information in the absence of Congressional legislation, consumer groups and lawyers said.

The White House called on companies such as Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. yesterday to work with privacy advocates to craft voluntary codes of conduct for handling consumer data based on a bill of rights for Web users, an effort that may bring the U.S. closer to European data-protection norms.

By enlisting industry in setting privacy guidelines, the administration is taking a flexible approach that would still create rules with teeth, Chris Wolf, a lawyer with Hogan Lovells LLP in Washington, said in an interview.

“It’s a huge step forward for both consumers and business,” Wolf said. “Consumers are expecting companies to do better, and companies are seeing some competitive advantage in distinguishing themselves as privacy champions.”

VentureBeat’s Sean Ludwig also thinks the guidelines are a step in the right direction. Ludwig reports:

While the bill is awfully vague, it’s a step in the right direction to help legislators in Congress come up with new ways to protect consumers online. And while the focus of this bill seems to be on advertisers like Google and AOL, it’s a shame Facebook — the company that controls and sells 800 million users’ worth of data — didn’t even get a single mention in the White House’s announcement blog post.

Do you think this is a step in the right direction for online privacy? What else would you like to see done?

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