Obama Plays Favorites – And His Favorite Is Google

Erik Telford President, Franklin Center
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Google and the Obama administration have taken cronyism to shocking new heights, and the American public will be left paying the price – literally – for the resulting policy consequences. The Commerce Department announced last week that they have created a new position, hiring Alan Davidson — a top Google lobbyist — for his tailor-made “director of digital economy” role.

Davidson joins a growing list of former Google executives who have been hired by the Obama Administration to fill key government positions, including U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith; Michelle Lee, Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; and Mikey Dickerson, a former Google engineer who was hired by the White House to help fix the HealthCare.gov debacle. As Politico’s Tony Romm described it, the administration has “plundered the search giant’s ranks.”

And Google isn’t letting their influence in the administration go to waste. As a recent Wall Street Journal investigation found, Google employees have made about 230 visits to the White House for meetings with senior staff since Obama took office – that’s roughly once a week. The company’s lobbyists have meetings at the White House an average of once per week, and have secured significant public policy wins benefiting their business model.

Touted for his qualifications as both a lawyer and computer scientists, Davidson claims his role at Commerce will be focused on giving “a greater voice to the Internet community on issues in this administration.” Given his role in Google’s transformation into a lobbying powerhouse over the past decade, however, it makes more sense to take this to mean giving a “greater voice” to the special interests of one particular member of the Internet community. Google may still be the biggest player online, but the company’s interests often conflict with the best interests of the Internet community as a whole. This is especially true for all of the issues Davidson says he will help the Commerce Department play a central role in: patent reform, privacy, Internet governance, and net neutrality.

Google has already received plenty of favorable treatment under the Obama Administration. In 2012, the company emerged unscathedfrom a Federal Trade Commission antitrust investigation into its practice of favoring its own products in Google searches. And earlier this year, Google was given improper access to the FCC’s final decision to embrace net neutrality through Title II regulation andsecured a last-minute tweak to the FCC’s new rules.

The Obama administration has a lot on its plate, yet has continually made Google’s pet issues a top priority – like their platform on patent “reform.” President Obama has pushed a Google-backed policy proposal that would classify leading research institutions like MIT as “patent trolls,” while saying that Google’s patent agenda would help to fix one of the “biggest problems” facing the United States today. Bringing Davidson into the Administration will serve to further entrench Google’s interests with official federal government policy.

As the Politico story notes, Davidson’s job will be to sink the “sprawling” Commerce Department’s fingers deeper into the middle of today’s tech policy debates, which have so far largely been the domain of the NSA and Department of Justice. The last thing we need in these debates, however, is another voice that is favorably disposed to advancing Google’s corporate interests. Remember that it is Google who stands to gain the most from the government’s policy on privacy, net neutrality and patents. Google thus has more power than just about anyone to stack the deck against other players in the digital space.

Lobbying records and campaign finance disclosures tell the story about Google’s uncomfortably close relationship with the White House. The company was the eighth biggest spender on lobbying with more than $18 million in the last presidential election cycle, and employee contributions to parties skewed heavily Democratic – more than $800,000 for Obama versus about $40,000 for Mitt Romney. Moreover, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt has been a top donor and consultant for Obama’s campaigns since 2007. It appears to be paying dividends.

Clearly the Obama administration’s tech-heavy hiring spree is an attempt to reclaim the progressive, digitally savvy mantel from the president’s campaign days, but the Davidson hire reeks of cronyism. Google already has the Obama administration at its beck and call. It’s time for the president to stop playing favorites and make his administration one that reflects the best interests of the entireInternet community — people like you and me who use it every day.

Erik Telford is the president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.