Congressman Laments Cold Shoulder from Google

Congressman Joe Barton recognizes he and his staff don’t know all there is to know about the privacy implications of the Internet or Google’s proposed acquisition of DoubleClick, so he wants to send his staffers to Mountainview to learn straight from the source at Google HQ. The House Privacy Caucus founder had a cordial meeting with the firm’s CEO Eric Schmidt in Washington, D.C. early last month, but now Barton thinks the Google gang is giving him the cold shoulder by ignoring phone calls and dismissing requests for a California meeting. Barton sent a letter to “Dr. Schmidt” yesterday, not only lamenting Google’s “chilly response” to his meeting request, but presenting a laundry list of inquiries he wants answered posthaste.

“Your warm initial invitation followed by Google’s chilly response to a proposed visit by Committee counsels is disconcerting,” wrote the Congressman in a missive copied to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee including Committee Chairman John Dingell.

Google, however, claims the company is happy to meet with Barton, his staff, or other committee members anywhere including the west coast Googleplex. According to Google’s Sr. Manager, Global Communications and Public Affairs Adam Kovacevich, the firm was surprised by the letter and has been involved in a series of conversations with the committee in recent months.

In his November 30 note responding to Barton’s meeting request, Schmidt suggested travel schedules and time constraints of both parties were barriers to meeting in California. As mentioned in his November 20 letter to Schmidt, the committee ranking member and Texas Republican explained he’d like to send two members of his staff at the expense of the taxpayer-funded committee on November 27 and 28 to Google’s California offices to help inform “potential legislative solutions” to the Internet’s “potential dangers.”

His request comes at a time when the Federal Trade Commission is expected to announce a decision on approving Google’s proposed DoubleClick buy sometime this month.

“We can see the inside of a D.C. office anytime we want,” said Larry Neal, deputy Republican staff director for the committee. “The reality is in practice we simply learn more by going to the places where the people making the decisions are.”

Queries featured in Barton’s letter involve Google’s storage and use of data, how the firm defines behavioral targeting, and whether the company uses information on previous Google Maps searches to serve ads on Google Maps pages.

Despite the demand for answers by December 18, Google expects to answer only questions that have not already been addressed by the firm in discussions with the committee, during a recent Senate hearing on the deal, last month’s FTC Town Hall conference on behavioral targeting, or that are not already available in the public domain, according to Kovacevich.

“Our expectations are high that we will achieve those responses and on the due date,” Neal told ClickZ News.

If presented in detailed form, some responses could illuminate issues many industry observers are clamoring to understand. For instance, Barton asked Google in his letter, “If Google does not intend to merge or combine the data Google retains with the information or data retained or collected by DoubleClick, please explain how the information will be segregated.”

In a communication sent by Barton following his November 6 meeting with Schmidt to discuss privacy implications of search technology and ad targeting, the congressman admitted, “From our conversation, I realize both my staff and I have much to learn about the mechanics of these aspects of the online world.”

Indeed, one question among the 24 submitted to Google yesterday demonstrates what could be perceived as a novice’s approach to the subject matter: “Please explain the technology called ‘rich media’ or ‘interactive multimedia,’ how this technology works, and what information may be collected by its use.” In fact, “rich media” and “interactive multimedia” are blanket terms employed to represent a wide variety of interactive technologies and content enabling anything from floating ad units to video on YouTube.

Barton has also been part of a push by fellow members of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection to convince the Subcommittee’s Chairman Bobby Rush to hold a hearing regarding privacy implications of the Google/DoubleClick deal. In a statement supporting the call for a hearing, Barton expressed concern that Google does not consider personal privacy of “computer users” to be much of a priority.

Sources at the House Energy and Commerce and the House Judiciary Committees have indicated hearings regarding the acquisition could be held in the future. The Senate Judiciary’s Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee has already held a hearing in September on the deal to discuss antitrust as well as privacy issues.

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