Ex-Googler Hoist By Mountain View’s Own Petard
It would be hard to imagine a better Google story. If the company’s own
web services somehow outed the most intimate secrets of CEO Eric Schmidt
man who says net privacy is only for miscreants – that would surely
be Google story to end all Google stories. But a comeuppance of such
epic proportions seems too much to ask. Today’s story will do just fine.
Last month, when Mountain View launched
its Google Buzz social networking service, US deputy CTO Andrew
McLaughlin was among those who belatedly realized that the Tweetbookish
Gmail add-on had publicly
exposed the people he emails and chats with the most. So says the
Washington-obsessed blog, Big
Government. And it was kind enough to provide screenshots. You
can see them here.
On one level, this is amusing because McLaughlin is officially the
country’s chief internet brain, the man charged with bringing the
2.0 revolution to Barack Obama’s federal government. As Big
Government points out, McLaughlin works in Obama’s Office of Science and
Technology Policy, whose mission includes “safeguarding the privacy of
every American…[by] holding businesses accountable for violations of
But the story resonates on an entirely different level when you consider
that McLaughlin joined the Obama administration after serving as
Google’s chief lobbyist – its head of global public policy. And
according to those screenshots posted by Big Government, Google Buzz
outed countless Google employees as among McLaughlin’s most contacted
contacts. The blog counts 28 Google employees in his contacts list,
including several top Google lobbyists and lawyers.
Which is just the sort of thing McLaughlin’s (many) critics were
concerned about when he was appointed as deputy CTO. As the news broke
that McLaughlin had left his Google post for the federal government,
pubic advocates called on Obama to halt the appointment, howling that
the new President was backtracking on an executive order intended to
lock the "revolving door" between the executive branch and corporate
"Given Mr. McLaughlin’s role over the years at Google, and most recently
his position with its political action committee, any post at the White
House would violate the intent of your executive order," read a letter
from the Center for Digital Democracy and the consumer watchdog known as
Consumer Watchdog. "
"As Google’s Director of Global Public Policy, Mr. McLaughlin led a team
of corporate policy advocates working to influence a wide range of
issues in the United States and globally. Simply put, he has been
responsible for Google’s worldwide lobbying efforts."
As Fortune examined in an October 2009 feature entitled "Obama
& Google (a love story)," the administration’s Mountain View
ties run deep. Googlers were among the biggest supporters of the Obama
campaign, donating roughly $803,000 according to OpenSecrets.org. Only
Microsoft and Goldman Sachs employees gave more.
After the election, McLaughlin worked for the Obama transition team
full-time, taking leave from Google, while Eric Schmidt was appointed to
the President Elect’s Transition Economic Advisory Board. Schmidt and
other top Googlers then contributed $25,000 apiece to the inauguration,
and McLaughlin was one of several ex-Googlers eventually appointed to
the administration, including former Google project manager Katie
Stanton, who became the White House director of citizen participation.
Sonal Shah, former head of global development at Google.org, was put in
charge of the White House Office of Social Innovation.
Meanwhile, Eric Schmidt now sits on Obama’s Council of Science and
Following Big Government’s post about McLaughlin’s Gmail activity,
Consumer Watchdog filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with
the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, seeking emails
between the deputy CTO and his former employer. "This shows what was
wrong with Google Buzz in the first place, but it has also outed
McLaughlin as maintaining ongoing ties with Google," Consumer Watchdog’s
John Simpson tells The Reg. "It’s one thing if you go to a company and
get a technology guy who’s buried in the company and bring him into
government. But McLaughlin was their top global lobbyist, peddling
influence for the company around the world."
And of course, there’s the added irony that McLaughlin is supposed to be
guarding our net privacy. It would seem he was displeased with the
Google Buzz privacy setup. But in showing his displeasure, he also seems
intent on maintaining private conversations with all those Google
employees on his contacts list.
"By default, Buzz adds the people you e-mail most as your ‘followers’,
and then lists them on your public Google Profile Page," he wrote in a,
well, Google Buzz post, according toBig Government. "In other words,
Google exposes the people you e-mail most, by default, to the world.
That violates my sense of expectations – I expect the list of people I
e-mail most to be kept private. What should I do? I guess I don’t really
have an option other than turning off Buzz. Any other ideas?”
McLaughlin then goes to make a "feature request" of the Buzz development
team, asking for a way to privately contact his "followers" – i.e., the
list of people compiled from his email and chat contacts. "I want to
post something to my followers, but I don’t want it to appear on my
public profile. But when I choose ‘Private.’ I get a list of contact
groups, none of which is ‘Followers.’ Under ‘Private,’ there should [be]
a choice for ‘Followers,’ dynamically updated as I add or delete."
Google has since modified the Buzz privacy settings, after complaints
from privacy advocates, the press, and apparently Google employees. But
this we knew. What we don’t know is the details of McLaughlin’s ongoing
relationship with Google – or to what extent he’s committed to "holding
the company accountable" for its violation of Americans’ personal
privacy – including his own.
Thus Consumer Watchdog’s FOIA request. This story may get even better.
Actually, it does get better. The most amusing aspect of Andrew
McLaughlin’s most contacted list is that it includes Wikipedia
co-founder Jimmy Wales. We can only hope "Jimbo"
has no serious influence on American internet policy.