London - For a company that describes transparency as one of its “core values”, it was something of a private party.

Google’s annual conference began on Monday amid tight security, with members of the media and public barred unless specifically invited.

Civil liberty campaigners warned that Google – which has been accused of invading the privacy of its customers by harvesting details about their online activity – was using its ‘dominance to influence decision-makers behind closed doors’ at the Zeitgeist event.

It comes after the Daily Mail revealed the astonishing scale of contact between the internet giant and the Tories, with meetings held once a month on average since the election.

Zeitgeist has previously been a popular forum for such meetings. David Cameron spoke at the conference in 2006 and in 2007 was flown to California to address its US equivalent. Last year, Chancellor George Osborne spoke and Universities Minister David Willetts will speak at a Google event after the conference this year.

Zeitgeist, now in its seventh year, is taking place at the five-star Grove hotel in Hertfordshire.

The 300-acre grounds and the hotel’s isolated rural setting make it the ideal location for the secretive two-day event. All information about the conference is distributed via a password-encrypted program, which guests must download on to their smartphone.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Beyond’ and features talks from the “great minds of our time” on issues from technology and politics to the arts.

Guests including Gwyneth Paltrow were believed to be listening to a debate on the euro crisis led by former Greek prime minister George Papandreou and Sir Martin Sorrell, head of advertising firm WPP.

In the final speech of the day, singer Annie Lennox highlighted the exclusive nature of the event, declaring she had just “addressed a room of 400 of Europe’s business leaders and biggest thinkers”.

Guests were forced to negotiate layers of security to gain entrance, as guards patrolled the grounds. Anyone not wearing a large Google name pass was quickly stopped and questioned.

Security is expected to be heightened even further today when former US president Bill Clinton gives the closing speech.

But the real action takes place on the sidelines, as the great and the good take the opportunity to network away from scrutiny.

One guest, who works in advertising, confided: ‘”The talks are a bit of a distraction for me. Like everyone else I’m here to network.” This year’s conference features a long list of speakers, including model Lily Cole and Jimmy Wales, founder of online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Celebrities and academics made up the bulk of the guestlist, while Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow, Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark and BBC sports presenter Clare Balding were invited from the media.

Yet access to the wider media and public was blocked.

It is a far cry from the values Google espouses on its website, where the internet search engine provider says that transparency is a ‘core value’ and that it wishes to ‘maximise’ the amount of information about it that is available to its customers.

Nick Pickles, director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: “At a time when Google is under intense scrutiny for disregarding concerns about its privacy policy and the exploitation of user data, it is wholly inappropriate for Google to use their market dominance to influence decision-makers behind closed doors.”

Google refused to comment on Monday night.

Zeitgeist is followed on Wednesday by a public conference to debate the internet and society called The Big Tent, to which the Daily Mail has been invited and which will feature a talk by Mail columnist Amanda Platell. - Daily Mail