Google Executive Apologizes Over Email To Consumer Watchdog Donor

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Google’s point man in Washington has issued an apology after a consumer advocacy group published an email in which he urged a donor to reconsider its funding of the group.

Bob Boorstin, Google’s Director of Corporate and Policy Communications, issued a statement on Monday apologizing for sending information about Consumer Watchdog to The Rose Foundation. Earlier on Monday, Consumer Watchdog published the text of an email that Boorstin sent to the foundation on February 9, in which he asked it to consider withdrawing funding. Boorstin cited Consumer Watchdog’s campaign to highlight Google’s alleged lobbying activities on Capitol Hill:

    "Most recently, they accused our company — without any evidence whatsoever and actually referencing ‘a rumored lobbying effort’ in a press release — of trying to obtain permission to sell patient medical records.  I am hoping that as you consider the activities of your grantees and whether to renew your commitments, you will take these kinds of activities into account and consider whether there might be better groups in which to place your trust and resources. I would like permission from you to address a letter to your Board of Trustees or Board of Directors in which we can highlight the activities of this grantee."

Besides publishing an excerpt from Boorstin’s February 9 email, Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court also published an open letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt. The letter stated that the organization had tried to "constructively engage Google on its privacy problems," but had been thwarted by Boorstin. The letter went on to outline Google’s supposed attempts to lobby Congress to weaken medical record privacy protection, a charge that Google flatly rejected in a January blog post. Court’s open letter further called on Google to disclose its lobbying positions and release copies of all correspondence to legislators, and demanded that Schmidt create a "Chief Privacy Ombudsman" to encourage an "honest dialogue about privacy."

After being contacted by the Industry Standard for comment, Boorstin issued an explanation and apology. In it, he said:

    "We have meetings constantly with groups that disagree with us on any number of issues. In fact, we engaged for months with Consumer Watchdog and sent them detailed responses to their concerns about user privacy. But the group’s recent actions – and in particular its baseless accusation that we were lobbying Congress for the right to sell patients’ medical records — led us to believe that they are more interested in attracting media attention than in engaging in an open and honest dialog. Nonetheless, I made a mistake in sending information about the group’s activities to the Rose Foundation for which I apologize.  Google supports the right of anyone or any institution to fund whatever group or project they choose."  

Last August, The Rose Foundation gave Consumer Watchdog $100,000 as part of the Google Privacy Rights Project, intended to build a set of model privacy policies and encourage Google to "become the standard-setter in customer privacy protection."

Disclosure: One of the authors of this article has a relative who works for Google. His job does not involve privacy or legal issues and the Standard did not discuss this article with him.

Consumer Watchdog
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