Sen. Franken Criticizes Google In Hearings, Praises Google In Promotional Video

Politics are messy and often riddled with ethical potholes and challenges. One illustration of this is Senator Al Franken’s apparent “conflict of interest” where Google is concerned. Discovered by Mike Blumenthal Franken did a “commercial” on behalf of Google’s “Get Your Business Online” initiative in Minnesota.

Blumethal characterizes Franken as “shilling for Google.” It’s not clear to me whether Franken’s promotion of the Google campaign gives rise to a true conflict of interest. However, the concern here is the appearance created by the fact that Franken is a member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust and Competition, charged with investigating Google’s business practices.

In the video below Franken praises the Google (and Intuit) effort to get Minnesota businesses online. Google is doing this in many states. There don’t seem to be senators or other public officials in these other videos however.

During the recent Senate hearings Franken was a critic of Google’s reputed conduct toward Yelp. Franken didn’t receive any compensation for the Google video and his oppositional stance toward Google seems to suggest that he’s not “going easy” on the company. But his participation in the Google “Get Your Business Online” campaign raises eyebrows.

Yet almost without exception the senators on the panel who spoke, at one point or another, pitched Google on locating offices and investing in their states. The worst was NY Senator Charles Schumer.

Take a look at the commercial Franken did for Google’s program and decide if you think it’s improper for him to both promote Google’s program and be part of a body investigating Google’s business practices.

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NOTE (4:47pm PT): You can no longer watch the video above here on our site, because about three hours after this post, permissions were changed so that the “embedded” play outside YouTube wasn’t allowed. That’s not the case for several other videos of the same nature in the Google Business channel. We’re checking on why this happened. You can see the video here.

NOTE 2: (5:02pm PT): Alan Bleiweiss notes that comments have also been disabled, unusual for videos for this channel.

NOTE 3: (Sept. 25): Heard back from Google, which told the embedding and comments were turned off temporarily and mistakenly, because a marketing person involved with the video production wanted to double-check that she’d included the right logos.  They’ve since been reenabled. Franken made no request to disable embedding or comments and has not contacted Google.

Franken has come a long way from his days as a comedian on SNL (think Stuart Smalley). And, arguably, being a senator and political figure has made him too serious. I prefer his earlier incarnation as a comedian (in the video below he’s impersonating Mick Jagger). Quite a far cry from where he is today.

Postscript From Danny Sullivan: It is pretty weird to watch the same senator who was grilling Google last week to be saying things about the Google program like “It’s something that you all should take advantage of” or asking that people “give a round of applause” to Google.

Of course, Franken did say during the hearing that he loves much of what Google did, and it’s hard to see that any sitting senator isn’t going to be happy about something they can associated themselves with as giving small businesses something free. Heck, during the hearings, two senators blatantly seemed to ask for Google handouts.

Postscript 2: During the hearing, pitches to get Google to bring high speed internet access to the states of various senators were raised. Everyone wants what Kansas City got, it seems.

I just noticed now looking at related videos on YouTube that Franken had done a pitch to Google back in 2010 to bring fiber to Duluth, Minnesota:

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • egockel

    It wouldn’t have been that hard to pull up a browser on a screen to see if Yelp reviews were in Google places during the meeting. Google probably would have been happy to provide the access/hardware.

    It was fun watching Franken and then Blumenthal spend a couple minutes initially stroking Google and then segueing with “BUT” .. And to Bluemental’s point about Google being a behemoth, so’s the government for that matter.

    Obviously Franken made his promo videos before this hubbub about Yelp and rankings, and it does seem a little nieve to be touting free services by Google and not wondering they must be paying for it somehow, perhaps by prioritizing their own agenda/services when possible.

  • Winooski

    I dunno, I’d say I’m pretty sensitive to the appearance of conflicts of interest in politicians, but the “Sen. Franken once made a pro-Google video” doesn’t seem that controversial in light of the fact that “…his oppositional stance toward Google seems to suggest that he’s not ‘going easy’ on the company.”

    On the other hand, having other Senators during the hearing blatantly soliciting Google for business development in their states ( ) is a new low, and that’s *definitely* worthy of outrage.

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