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Most of us use Google products on a daily basis and are familiar with the company’s powerful email and Internet search services. But these days, there is a lot more to Google’s technological operations — and they come with myriad new ways to collect our information. Now the company that used Street View cars to collect unsuspecting people’s information, and received the Federal Trade Commission’s largest civil penalty ever for misleadingly tracking Safari users, is reaching new levels of political power.

A new Public Citizen report, “Mission Creep-y,” explores Google’s accruing power, both in terms of personal data collection, and federal and state government influence, raising the question of whether it could become too powerful to be held accountable.

Key findings about Google’s growing political power:

  • Over the first three quarters of 2014, Google ranked first among all corporations in lobbying spending, according to, and is on pace to spend $18.2 million on federal lobbying this year. In fact, it has spent $1 million more on lobbying than PhRMA, the powerful trade association of the pharmaceutical industry.
  • Since 2012, no company has spent more money on federal lobbying than Google.
  • Of 102 lobbyists the company has hired or retained in 2014, 81 previously held government jobs. Meanwhile, a steady stream of Google employees has been appointed to high-ranking government jobs – an indication of the company’s growing influence in national affairs.
  • Google’s political action committee (PAC) spent $1.61 million this year, according to Federal Election Commission records. That surpasses, for the first time, PAC expenditures by Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs.
  • Google funds about 140 trade associations and other nonprofits across the ideological spectrum – including some working in issue areas relevant to Google’s practices on privacy, political spending, antitrust and more.

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It’s been a big week for climate change. Here’s a roundup of the news in case you’ve had trouble keeping up:

Yesterday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hosted a UN Summit on climate change in New York, convening leaders in government, business, finance and civil society to “galvanize and catalyze climate action.” The idea was that world leaders would announce major new initiatives. To some extent it was a success, although it didn’t prompt major announcements from the U.S. or China, the 800-pound carbon emitters in the room.

President Barack Obama spoke at the summit, urging aggressive action, particularly from China. He announced an executive order requiring federal agencies to “factor climate resilience” into foreign aid and development decisions. Regarding major actions on climate change, he simply referred to the EPA’s proposed rule to curb carbon emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, which Public Citizen strongly supports and seeks to strengthen. He also noted that the U.S. is on target to meet its pledge to cut emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. For its part, China said it would try to peak its carbon emissions “as early as possible.”

Just last week, the U.S. made two other announcements:

  • The Department of Energy proposed a rule that would require hotels to use more efficient heating and cooling equipment. The rule could reduce carbon emissions by 11.29 metric tons, which is like taking 2.3 million cars off the road. It’s also another example of how climate change policy makes good economic sense. DOE estimates that the rule would cost businesses up to $9.39 million per year but save them up to $13.1 million per in energy costs. Those benefits are in addition to $7.2 million annual savings from reduced carbon emissions.
  • The White House announced that it secured voluntary commitments from some large chemical manufacturers and retailers to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, more quickly than the law requires. This is an important development, as HFCs are 10,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing climate change.

There were several other important developments around the summit as well:

  • The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate issued a blockbuster report concluding that stopping climate change might not cost us anything. The crux of the analysis: Over the next 15 years, we’ll spend $90 trillion on new infrastructure world-wide anyway. Ambitious measures to combat climate change would add just 5% to that figure. When you factor in the benefits – like better public health from reduce air pollution – the measures will likely be net-positive for the economy.
  • New York City announced a major plan to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, which will set the city on target to curb its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 2005 levels. That’s the reduction that the UN has said industrialized countries must make to prevent catastrophic climate change.
  • The World Bank announced that 73 countries, 22 states, and over 1,000 businesses have pledged support for putting a price on carbon. The list includes the European Union and China, but not the U.S. It doesn’t provide any specifics on what anyone will do. Nor is it legally binding. But it’s a start.
  • The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, originally launched with Standard Oil money, led 180 institutions and hundreds of individuals in announcing that they will divest $50 billion in assets from fossil fuels.
  • Over 340 institutional investors worldwide that control at least $34 trillion in assets called on governments to put a price on carbon.
  • Google announced that it would sever ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) because of the group’s opposition to sound climate change policy. “Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place,” Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said. “And so we should not be aligned with such people — they’re just, they’re just literally lying.” Public Citizen pointed out that by the same reasoning, Google should leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well. Facebook soon announced that it too was leaving ALEC.

Ahead of the UN Summit, over 300,000 – and possibly as many as 400,000 – people joined the People’s Climate March in New York City. It was the largest climate demonstration in history, shattering the organizers’ goal of 100,000 participants. In addition to the march in New York, activists held 2,808 other events in 166 countries.

We also learned some bad news last week:

  • The Global Carbon Project reported that greenhouse emissions grew by 2.3 percent in 2013, demonstrating that we still have a long way to go in fighting climate change. We need to start moving in the opposite direction, quickly.
  • This past August was the hottest in recorded history. May and June also set new records, and April tied the record set in 2010.

So we have our work cut out for us. But we can solve this problem – and evidence is mounting that stopping climate change will benefit consumers and the economy, not hurt us. We just need to convince our governments to act. You can start by telling the EPA that you support its proposal to curb carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Google’s 2014 annual shareholder meeting attracted what may have been the largest protest ever on its Silicon Valley campus, and an acknowledgement by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt that shareholders are loudly calling for more political spending transparency, as well as a promise to come up with an answer.

Public Citizen organized with a range of groups including Forecast the Facts, Eviction Free San Francisco, and Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) to rally with more than 100 people on Wednesday afternoon in Mountain View, California.

Sam Jewler at Google Protest

Sam Jewler speaks at a protest outside of Google’s shareholder meeting in Mountain View, CA.

Then Sam Jewler of Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch entered Google’s shareholder meeting with Tim Smith of Walden Asset Management, who officially introduced the shareholder proposal calling on Google to disclose more about its political spending.

The proposal earned a 24 percent vote – which sounds small, but executives own all but 38 percent of the vote. That means almost two-thirds of voting shareholders supported the political spending disclosure resolution.

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Note: This post originally appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog.

There is a vast and dangerous imbalance of transparency in Google’s relationship with the American people. The company, which has a $395 billion market capitalization value – the second largest after Apple –  can see our Internet searches, our inboxes, our contacts, our instant messages, our use of maps to get around, our shared documents, and more. “No one knows as much about its customers as Google,” said the chief executive of Europe’s largest newspaper publisher recently. In fact, Google’s business model relies on collecting as much information as possible about its users and selling it to advertisers, which then follow us around the Internet, peddling their wares with an eerie omniscience.

Compare Google’s all-seeing position with how little we know about what the tech giant is spending to influence our government. We know Google is providing what it calls “substantial contributions” to at least 39 trade associations and membership organizations, including extreme right-wing groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which pours tens of millions of dollars into election ads, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which writes and lobbies for conservative legislation. But we don’t know how much funding it provides them, or to what ends – which is the ultimate definition of dark money.

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Shareholder meeting season is upon us!

I know, Public Citizen is known for watch-dogging corporations not investing in them.

But this is the time of year that the Corporate Reform Coalition (a coalition Public Citizen chairs) gears up to do some serious protesting outside of company meetings (and to ask tough questions inside the meetings too.)

Corporate cash in elections corrupts our public officials and thwarts important progressive reforms by spreading misinformation and drowning out the voices of average people.  The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has the power to change this.  Until they act, we’ll be joining with shareholders who are fed-up with the lack of transparency and who are striking back with resolutions and rallies to pressure companies to do the right thing themselves. With those things in mind we picked a couple of big corporations this year that stood out as uniquely deserving of activist anger for their meddling in our democracy and our lives.

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