Is President Obama Too Googley-Eyed?

Remember when Barack Obama first entered the White House, and he made a deal with the Secret Service to keep his Blackberry?  Admitting to his addiction to the device, the president got the agents to create a secure Blackberry that he could use while in office; and to those of us who were fans of the new president, this seemed folksy and endearing.

Although I still admire and commend this president for many things well outside the editorial scope of this blog, I am admittedly dismayed by the remarkable degree of influence that Google seems to have on his administration.  Chris Castle has reported consistently on the number of former Google executives who now work for Obama, including the nation’s Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.  And while it is not unreasonable that a 21st century administration should hire people out of one of the world’s leading technology companies, the fact remains that Google does a lot more than make tech; its leaders project a world view that may not be the basis of good policy for the American people.  Certainly, it has not been good policy for America’s creative people.

Yesterday, Dawn Chmeilewski published an article on re/code that includes a chart of lobbyist visits to the White House in which we see that Google lobbyist Johanna Shelton visited administration officials more than twice as often as the next highest representative from Blue Cross/Blue Shield.  “Google’s head of public policy has met with White House officials 128 times over the course of the Obama administration — more visits than the telecom and cable industries combined, according to the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign for Accountability,” writes Chmeilewski.

Meanwhile, if Obama is not purposely shaping public policy according to Google, he’s coming pretty close to doing so for reasons perhaps only he knows.  I reported a few posts ago that the new Department of Commerce Digital Economy Board includes no representative of any sector other than tech. Obama has backed the FCC AllVid proposal, which even Roku’s founder Anthony Wood describes as a Google handout.  David Dayen reported in The Intercept last week that the Obama administration certainly seems to treat the search giant with kid gloves. This is despite the fact that, “Google has faced questions for years about exercising its market power to squash rivals, infringing on its users’ privacy rights, favoring its own business affiliates in search results, and using patent law to create barriers to competition. Even Republican senators like Orrin Hatch have called out Google for its practices,” Dayen writes.

There is a lot of talk about corporate influence in our political process these days, and with good reason.  In particular, there is a considerable amount of intra-party bickering among democrats, squabbling over how much or how little Wall Street influences Hillary Clinton, or how innoculated Bernie Sanders really is from such things.  Of course, in reality, it isn’t quite that simple.  Most political leaders—with certain notable exceptions—have some sort of vision, an idea about the way society ought to progress, and all political leaders are going to hear from influential people who have access.  But access isn’t just about money. Yes, Google spends an unholy amount of money on lobbyists today, but that’s not the real question.  The real question is the extent to which Obama’s own policy agenda is in synch with Google’s policy agenda; and the more that they are, the greater the concern.

Naturally, I’m acutely concerned about the extent to which President Obama might view copyright policy through his Google Glass (assuming he got one of the remaining devices).  But as I’ve repeated since launching this blog, I believe copyright policy prefaces a much broader question as to how we intend to manage the digital age in general.  In this regard, the fact that the Obama administration is so cozy with Google does not bode well for holding the company accountable for any of its predatory, anti-trust, anti-copyright, and even anti-privacy transgressions.  And this should be a matter of concern to all Americans, not just the 5+ million working in the core copyright industries.

Tangentially, It is worth noting that, despite the tedious repetition in the blogosphere that the motion picture and recording industries exert vast and secretive influence in Washington regarding all things copyright, the chart published on re/code reveals not a single visit to the White House by a representative from the MPAA or RIAA.  No dobut, they’re meeting in an undisclosed bunker plotting to destroy the internet, while Obama’s overt relationships with all these Googlers is just a ruse.  (Seriously, I read this on the internet.)

© 2016, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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3 Responses to Is President Obama Too Googley-Eyed?

  1. Agreed, David. I genuinely respect Obama–and voted for him twice–and I feel that he has been outstanding as President. Outstanding, but not perfect (no one could be). But the closeness to Google and Silicon Valley is worrisome.

    At the same time, that does torpedo the idea I’ve seen in some places that the RIAA and the MPAA have their hooks in the White House and that Obama was the “tool of Wall Street” (a charge constantly thrown at Hillary Clinton).

    Just my 2-cents, of course.

    • David Newhoff says:

      Thanks, Marc. As a general rule, I think people either oversimplify or misread some of these relationships. The most altruistic, “purest” political figures have to meet with representatives of every constituency, private, not-for-profit, etc. What they do with the information they get, why they value input from one party over another will surely be influenced by campaign finance, but not exclusively. Assuming Obama is, at his core, the leader you and I both like on many levels, I think it’s safer to assume that he’s a bit of a tech geek and is personally susceptible to Google’s world view. That isn’t corruption per se, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Likewise, the “tool of Wall Street” meme is oversimplified I think. The best presidents in history make hard choices people hate. The reasons are not always transparent at the time they are made.

      And, yes, the notion that RIAA and MPAA are all powerful in DC is just silly. In a way, one would think the most “powerful” should be the ones representing the largest number of working Americans, which would put entertainment industries near the top of the list. Google hardly employs many Americans at all.

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