Erik Telford

Are you comfortable with one of the world’s most powerful corporations recording and analyzing every email you send and receive, every document you open, the videos that you watch online, and your full search history?

That’s right, when it comes to privacy, Google has roughly the same policy as a bad Sting song from the 80s: every breath you take, every move you make--they’ll be watching you.

Very few Americans can say they’ve never used one of Google’s services--such as YouTube, Google Docs, and Gmail--to the extent that the term “Google” was officially declared a verb in 2006 by Merriam-Webster, defining the practice of using an internet search engine. Unfortunately, too few members of the public are aware of the company’s intrusive tactics of gathering users’ personal information and using it to target them.

Even more troubling than the way Google uses this data to target advertising toward its consumers, is the way it is targeting ads to the public at large, especially when it comes to search results on individuals’ names.

According to a recent study by Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, if you have a “traditionally black name,” you’re more likely to see Google Ads promoting criminal background checks and arrest record searches, even if you’ve never had so much as a parking ticket. Names like Trevon, Lakisha, and Darnell are significantly more likely to trigger crime-related ads than names like Brandon or Katie, according to the study of over 2,100 names by computer scientists and data privacy specialists. In fact, the differences in advertising are so blatant that Harvard’s researchers put the odds of coincidence at only 1 percent.

This shocking study begs the question: exactly how is Google using our personal information to determine which advertisements are served to us?

Given the longstanding track record of close, and inappropriate, ties between the company and the Obama administration, I decided to conduct an anecdotal examination of Google’s targeting practices on an ideological basis. I set up dummy Gmail profiles for a conservative living in Tennessee, and a liberal living in Brooklyn – with the conservative signed up for email lists like the National Rifle Association, pro-life organizations, and religious groups; while subscribing the liberal to lists like DailyKos, MoveOn.org, and environmental groups.

Not surprisingly, Google targeted ads to the liberal for graduate programs and Mensa game sites, while the conservative was served ads for products like credit repair services, tobacco substitutes, and commercial trucking school.

While an empirical analysis would be required to determine the systemic nature of this type of targeting, privacy is just one of the reasons conservatives should be skeptical about Google and its products.

Google isn’t just a friend of President Obama: they’re also his most notorious corporate crony. Since 2008, there has been a steady flow of cash, personnel, and technology from Google's California headquarters to Barack Obama. Google employees were his fourth-largest source of cash in 2008, and third-largest in 2012. And that’s in addition to Google’s official lobbying efforts. The Internet giant spent $16.48 million on federal lobbying in 2012--almost twice what it spent in 2011.

The company’s chairman, Eric Schmidt has been one of Obama’s closest informal advisors, and was even reportedly offered the post of Treasury Secretary. But Google’s biggest contribution, however, has been specially-designed technology, not yet available to the public, which allowed Obama to connect with voters in ways his opponents could not.

Less than two months after Obama won reelection with Google’s generous support, the corporation emerged from a serious antitrust case with nary a scratch. The Federal Trade Commission had accused Google of manipulating its searches to favor its own products, and could have dealt a crippling blow to its hegemony over the Internet. Instead, after donating $25,000 to honor the FTC chairman--while still under investigation by the agency--Google walked away from the case with a nonbinding “handshake” agreement, which is unenforceable if they decide not to comply.

Beyond cronyism, Google supports an aggressively left-wing policy agenda that includes regulations such as so-called “network neutrality” that will benefit their bottom-line at the expense of internet users and providers across the country – stifling innovation within the online sphere by forcibly changing the internet into a public utility through government takeover.

After years in bed with the left, Google has launched a recent charm offensive to court Republican lawmakers and conservative groups in Washington, DC, through efforts like hiring former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-NY) to head their DC office, and an infusion of donations to right of center think tanks and non-profit groups.

Unfortunately, too many on the right have forgotten that Google is not their friend. Given the company’s long and troubling track record of standing against conservatives and their values, it would be wise to respond to their flirtations by playing hard-to-get, until the company revisits its behavior and practices.


Erik Telford

Erik Telford is Vice-President for Strategic Initiatives and Outreach, at the Franklin Center. Contributions reflect his personal views.


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