House panel miffed by Google's alleged rebuff

Google puzzled, says it has met with House staff to discuss DoubleClick deal

Members of a congressional committee are unhappy that Google's executives can't find a mutually agreeable time to discuss the company's proposed US$3.1 billion acquisition of online advertising company DoubleClick.

So Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, took another tack: He asked Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in a letter, to answer 24 questions -- some with multiple parts -- about the privacy and consumer-protection implications of the deal.

Barton also told Schmidt that the committee was displeased that Google couldn't find time to meet with committee members, even though Schmidt said his company was willing to help the committee better understand the potential ramifications of the acquisition.

In the letter, Barton also reminded Schmidt that during a November 6 visit to his congressional offices to discuss, among other topics, the DoubleClick merger, Schmidt offered Google's help.

However, Barton said when he tried to set up a meeting to visit Google in Mountain View, California, he was rebuffed at every turn.

"On November 20, I wrote Google corporate officials to request that two counsels from the House Energy and Commerce Committee staff be permitted to visit your California headquarters offices, at committee expense," Barton said in the letter. "The purpose of this trip was to learn firsthand about existing search and targeted advertising technology, what information may be garnered through the use of this technology, how that information is used and, most importantly, how that information could be used.

"Google officials with whom we spoke deemed the dates inconvenient, and the request was denied. Since then, all efforts to reach a mutually agreeable time have been rebuffed, and it begins to seem that no date for a visit is sufficiently convenient to Google. Your warm initial invitation, followed by Google's chilly response to a proposed visit by committee counsels is disconcerting."

Google provided Computerworld with a response that Schmidt wrote to Barton on November 30.

In the letter, Schmidt said Google would be happy to work with the committee's staff to provide additional information about the online advertising business, its benefits to the US economy and privacy issues surrounding online advertising. However, he also said that Google had already met with Barton and his staff about the matter.

In addition, Schmidt said Google participated in a "town hall" meeting on the issue held by the Federal Trade Commission on November 1 and 2. Schmidt said Google addressed many of Barton's concerns at that meeting.

Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich said his company was surprised by Barton's most recent letter. Kovacevich said Google has been talking with Barton and his staff about privacy issues for the past several months. He said Google executives met with Barton in Washington in August, and Schmidt met again with Barton on November 6 in Washington, and the two talked in detail about privacy issues and some of Google's privacy policy.

Then, on November 20, two days before Thanksgiving, Kovacevich said Barton sent a letter to Google saying he was prepared to send two members of his staff to Google's California headquarters on November 27 and 28.

After receiving that letter, a Google official called Barton's office and said the company would be willing to brief his staff, but the people who would conduct the briefing were going to be in Florida for the YouTube presidential debate, according to Kovacevich.

In his November 30 letter to Barton, Schmidt said he would be happy to host a briefing for Barton's staff in Google's Washington offices rather than its California offices if that would be more convenient, the Google spokesman said.

Kovacevich said although many of the answers to Barton's questions are in the public domain, Google was willing to work with his staff to address any unanswered questions.

In today's letter, Barton asked Schmidt to respond to his questions to help the committee better understand the implications of the deal.

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