Google's dangerously close relationship with our decision-making politicians needs to be challenged

15 Googlers have been appointed to government positions in Europe, including Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, appointed by David Cameron to his business advisory council

Andreas Whittam Smith
Wednesday 08 June 2016 18:20 BST
A guard closes the gate of Google's Paris headquarters after a raid
A guard closes the gate of Google's Paris headquarters after a raid (EPA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


So great is the concern about the influence of Google on governments all over the world that a Google Transparency Project has been set up to discover what is going on. This is an important issue. The OECD, an inter-government body, says that what it calls ‘policy capture’ has ‘consequences’ for business competition – which is putting it mildly.

Policy capture describes a situation in which commercial interests so infiltrate governments that they can affect the design of measures that are relevant to their activities. That this becoming commonplace is one reason why trust in government is waning.

Now the Google Transparency Project has done some valuable analysis of Google’s interactions with the American government and with European governments including our own. Unfortunately the project’s origins are not as clear as they should be. An American tax-exempt body called the Campaign for Accountability runs the unit.

The Campaign for Accountability states that it “uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life”. It notes that millions of Americans’ lives are negatively impacted by decisions made behind the doors of corporate boardrooms, government offices, and “shadowy nonprofit groups”.

It adds that advocacy groups do not always have the capacity or will to take on the opposition directly. “We will hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.”

All fine and dandy. However a visit to the web site of Campaign for Accountability does not reveal its sources of finance. It lists staff members, but shows no major figure associated with its work. But, in spite of these omissions, its recent analysis of the “revolving door” between Google and the Government is undeniably interesting.

This shows that the company has hired at least 65 government officials from all over the European Union since 2005. During the same period, 15 Googlers have been appointed to government positions in Europe, thus penetrating to the heart of the decision-making process.

These included Baroness Shields, a former managing director for Google (she has held roles at Bebo, AOL and Facebook), who was appointed the UK’s Minister for Internet Safety and Security at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; and Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, appointed by David Cameron to his business advisory council. Members of such groups have direct access to decision makers.

In fact, Google has particularly targeted public institutions in the United Kingdom. It has hired from no fewer than 17 state bodies including Number 10, the Home Office, the Treasury, the House of Commons, and Departments of Education and Skills, International Development, and Transport.

This adds to what was already known through the use of the Freedom of Information Act. Between January 2014 and March 2015, for instance, there were 24 meetings between Google and government ministers including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne and his influential Cabinet colleague, Oliver Letwin.

This is part of a much bigger story. It starts at the beginning of the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher here and Ronald Reagan in the US overturned the orthodoxy that governments knew best. This had held sway since the war regardless of which political party was in power.

Instead, the two leaders argued, markets know best. So Thatcher and Reagan removed restrictions on the movement of capital across borders (hence ushering in globalisation). They privatised some government functions and contracted out others to reduce the size of the state. And they rapidly deregulated business, complaining that entrepreneurial endeavours were being strangled by red tape.

Sensible though this programme was in many ways, business wanted more. Indeed, since the days of Thatcher and Reagan business interests have systematically set out to bend governments further to their will by incessant lobbying. The Google revelations provide a snapshot of how this is done. The same takes place in Brussels, Washington and wherever political power is situated.

Of course government ministers do not have to open their doors to business chiefs. But as in Britain at least, few of them have had any experience of business themselves, having for the most part worked in politics all their lives, they are naïve. They cannot ‘read’ their business visitors.

I would like to see zero tolerance of lobbying. No visits to ministers; written submissions only.

Or perhaps follow the French example. France’s tax prosecutor charged Google with aggravated tax evasion. So last month dozens of tax investigators raided Google’s offices in Paris and sealed them off. For a few hours, nobody could enter or leave. No tea and biscuits.

That’s the way.

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