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Today's Must-Read: National Journal on Google in DC

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, March 18 2009

Today's must-reading: Neil Munro's detailed look at Google's growing presence in Washington. He writes:

Executives at online-advertising giant Google are helping President Obama and Capitol Hill legislators get their messages out to the public, but they're facing nascent opposition from privacy advocates and small competitors who say Google is inappropriately using its presence on government Web sites to track users' political activities online. These critics say that Google, aided by the White House, is using "cookie" software and the popular goal of government transparency to boost its own revenues and to build a vast database of citizens' political attitudes.

I think Munro paints Google's activities in a more malevolent light than the company deserves, raising the spectre of potential privacy violations from the use of persistent cookies when, as far we know, no such violations have occurred. In addition, it's far from clear that it is a bad thing if Google helps open up better, universal access to government data (lots of which can't be spidered or indexed properly because of archaic document-handling practices), even if that means more people will use Google's search tool to get to that information (benefitting the company with more opportunities to sell ads alongside those search results).

White House officials told Munro that they "don't provide Google access to any personal information about our users" and "we aren't using [Internet] data for political purposes, nor do we have any plans to." But privacy advocates point out that Google may indeed be collecting such information by tracking visitors to YouTube videos shown by the White House or Members of Congress.

Folks like David Sohn of the Center for Democracy and Technology and Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy are right to keep asking hard questions about the company and its growing political footprint, and both Google and politicians in Washington would be wise to keep being as transparent as possible about their practices.