Consumer Watchdog Took Millions From Google, Quiet on Privacy Concerns

Center for Democracy and Technology stays out of debate over tech giant’s data mining (Updated)

The 'Googleplex' in Mountain View, California / AP
May 3, 2016

An influential tech industry watchdog group that has received millions of dollars from Google has been silent on the internet giant’s recent fight to circumvent Federal Communications Commission restrictions on data collection.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, a consumer watchdog group with outsized influence in Washington, took in $2.5 million from Google between 2010 and 2014, according to tax records. The donations amounted to more than double the amount contributed by any other company during the same period.

Although the CDT has been a vocal critic of privacy infringements by internet companies, it has stayed out of a recent debate over Google’s data mining practices.

Critics argue that Google’s funding for the CDT and other industry watchdogs has essentially turned these groups into an extension of the company’s lobbying efforts and stifled debate about Google’s heavy reliance on data collection. They say the problem has become more obvious as Google fights against privacy regulations for its proposed set-top television box.

"Google spreads money around, not just to politicians, but also think tanks and watchdog groups," said Anne Weismann, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, a corporate ethics group. "Undoubtedly, this generosity tempers potential criticism."

The CDT has thrown itself into the center of other privacy debates, recently pushing for data mining restrictions on broadband companies.

Last month, the group signed a letter to the Federal Communications Commission criticizing the "disproportionate impact of data collection and use practices on the constituencies we represent," particularly "communities of color, women, and other historically disadvantaged groups." The letter called on the FCC to institute additional rules protecting consumer privacy on broadband companies.

The CDT also lobbied in favor of the Email Privacy Act, a bill aimed at safeguarding consumer data, and praised its passage in the House of Representatives last week. Earlier this month, it criticized a Senate proposal that would restrict the use of encryption for data protection.

The CDT’s website says one of its main issues is consumer privacy and that it works to ensure "services are designed in ways that preserve privacy, establishing protections that apply across the data’s life-cycle, and preserving individual autonomy by giving the individual control over how their data is used."

Although Google has been one of the CDT’s top contributors in recent years, these donations pale in comparison to the internet giant's overall spending on lobbying. The corporation spent nearly $17 million on federal lobbying in 2014.

Industry observers say Google’s efforts have helped it amass influence at the FCC under the current chairman, Tom Wheeler.

"It's odd that the U.S. has given Google pass after pass for the same anti-competitive conduct that European regulators are looking to take on," Weismann said. "It's legitimate to wonder why this is."

Wheeler has proposed opening up the set-top television box market to non-cable companies. Google—which has been developing a set-top box and would be one of the main beneficiaries of the rule change—has argued it should not be subject to the same FCC privacy restrictions as cable companies.

Google’s potential foray into the set-top box market could be a serious setback for cable companies, which believe the internet giant would have an unfair advantage on data collection. The FCC imposes strict limits on the type of data that cable companies can collect from viewers, but Google has said it should not be governed by these rules because internet companies are under the regulatory authority of the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC.

"Imposing new privacy rules specifically directed to new generations of devices and applications is unnecessary given the comprehensive scope of the FTC Act and state privacy laws, which can be enforced directly against equipment manufacturers and application developers in appropriate cases," Google said in a statement reported by Politico Pro this week.

The CDT told the Washington Free Beacon that it has been transparent about all of its donors and that its policy agenda is independent from donations.

"CDT has been recognized as a leader in fiscal transparency," spokesman Brian Wesolowski said. "We are proud of the diversity of funding we receive and we share this information clearly on our website. CDT is grateful for its supporters and they respect that our advocacy agenda is not tied to any contributions."

"Our FCC-oriented work is currently focused on the Section 222 proceedings, which are at the very core of consumer privacy issues."

There are other connections between Google and the tech industry watchdog group. Google was a platinum sponsor of the CDT’s annual dinner in early April, along with Facebook and Microsoft.

The CDT’s former associate director, Alan Davidson, left the group to become Google’s main lobbyist in 2005 before moving to a job at another Google-backed policy shop, the New America Foundation.

The CDT’s actions have often dovetailed with Google’s policy agenda. The group opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that was intended to prevent copyright violations online. It also opposed the SAVE Act, a bill aimed at tracking and preventing child trafficking through online advertisements. Opponents of the bills said SOPA would hinder innovation and be difficult to enforce, while the SAVE Act was too wide-reaching and could infringe on free expression by encouraging websites to censor legitimate content.

The CDT is not the only organization that receives funding from Google. In 2014, the Washington Post reported that the internet company helped fund nearly 140 trade associations, advocacy groups and think tanks—double the number of groups the company donated to in 2010.

According to Google, it currently funds 102 third-party groups "whose work intersects in some way with technology and Internet policy." This includes other consumer rights groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumer Action.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

UPDATE 4:15 P.M.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the CDT received $2.5 million from Google in 2014. This amount was actually the total the CDT received from Google between 2010 and 2014.

Published under: Google , Transparency