Google’s Lack of Political Spending Transparency Threatens Brand, Hurts Democracy

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– Google Inc.’s lack of transparency in its political spending and its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce pose a threat both to the company’s brand as well as to our democracy, according to letters sent this week by shareholders and citizen groups to the firm’s board of directors.

On the day of Google’s annual shareholder meeting, groups representing investors, consumers and citizens held a press conference to call on the company to disclose its political spending and leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a trade association with a track record of advocating for corporate-friendly public policy positions that Google has claimed to oppose.

“Google has led the way in opening up the Internet and providing access to information. Now it can lead the way in ending secret campaign spending by leaving the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is one of the biggest spenders of secret corporate cash in elections,” said Garo Manjikian, consumer advocate for teh Publuc Interest Research Group (PIRG). “For Google to truly stand by its principles, it must pull its funding and membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

Twenty-six investor groups delivered letters to the company signed by shareholders representing more than $125 billion in assets under management. In addition, Public Citizen, PIRG and SumOfUs delivered citizen petitions signed by a combined 300,000 consumers and citizens demanding changes to Google’s political spending policies.

This lack of disclosure concerning its political spending and the corporation’s membership in the U.S. Chamber stand in stark contrast to Google’s stated corporate principles, which include a commitment to transparency and clean energy. These conflicting stances are a threat to Google’s brand, as they directly clash with the values that both users and investors have come to expect from the company.

On its website, the company explicitly states, “Transparency is a core value at Google. As a company we feel it is our responsibility to ensure that we maximize transparency around the flow of information related to our tools and services. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.”

“While Google has a track record demonstrating that they value transparency, Internet user privacy and curbing climate change, the U.S. Chamber has actively undermined progress on these issues,” said Lucia von Reusner, shareholder advocate for Green Century Capital Management, which organized 16 investor groups to sign letters to Google. “Google’s support of the U.S. Chamber is perceived as an implicit endorsement of controversial policies and positions that the company publicly claims to oppose, creating confusion and risks for shareholders. It’s time for Google to align its actions with its values and end its association with the U.S. Chamber.”

“It’s troublesome for consumers that about the only thing you can’t google is Google’s political spending,” said Jake Parent, project coordinator for Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch program. “And why does Google maintain its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, when the Chamber supports policies that directly contradict Google’s stated principles and goals, including its stated commitment to clean energy?”

“Google’s stated mission is ‘to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,’” said Meredith Benton, vice president of Boston Common Asset Management. “Yet, investors and other stakeholders, through Google’s membership in trade associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are left with confused and conflicting messages about the company’s true policy interests and direction. As investors, we seek additional transparency and disclosure of Google’s policies as they relate to its political contributions and trade association memberships.”

The call to action comes in the wake of the first presidential election cycle after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which gave corporations the green light to spend unlimited sums to influence elections. Outside spending in the 2012 elections jumped fourfold in 2010, with much of the money coming from undisclosed corporate sources.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce funneled more than $35 million in undisclosed corporate funds into the 2012 elections — money that is essentially anonymous and cannot be traced back to its original source. This untraceable spending undermines our democratic process by keeping voters in the dark about what interests are behind campaign spending and preventing the public from holding spenders accountable.

Much of that money went to finance extreme right wing political candidates whose views lie outside the political fringe.    Despite wild spending by such outside groups, few of the right wing extremists were elected but some of those who did win hold key leadership assignments that make them real threats to progress.

 


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