By Arshad Mohammed and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Dressed in blue jeans, silver mesh sneakers and a black T-shirt and jacket, Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin came to Washington yesterday to lobby members of Congress and found it was a little harder than he had hoped it would be to get meetings.
The world's 16th-richest person -- with an $11 billion fortune, according to Forbes Magazine -- Brin, 31, described himself as naive about the ways of Washington. He said his trip was not well organized and admitted that he did not know which way Congress was tilting on the main issue that brought him to the nation's capital.
He and co-founder Larry Page made their fortunes by influencing cyberspace, not Capitol Hill. But the rapid rise of Google has plunged the company into public policy issues that the company is just learning to address. Google's Washington presence is limited to a four-person office, which opened last year, and a contract with lobbying firm PodestaMattoon.
While Brin aides said he met with at least four senators, he did not see Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose committee has the greatest sway over the telecom legislation that Brin is trying to influence. The offices of four other senators said they could not arrange meetings, noting that they were approached late last week.
"It wasn't very well organized," Brin said in an interview, with soft-spoken candor. The visit was a late addition to an East Coast itinerary. "I apologize. It was a last-minute trip."
Brin came to lobby members of Congress about "network neutrality" -- the idea that phone and cable companies should not be allowed to block legal Web sites or slow down or otherwise discriminate against the ever-increasing volume of Internet content that surges over their networks.
Advocates say they fear the phone companies will charge some content providers more to deliver their services, potentially locking out or slowing down the traffic of those who don't pay.
Phone and cable companies say that they will not block Web sites but that they should be free to manage their networks and to charge more to those who want guaranteed fast delivery.
The battle over the issue has been raging in Washington all year and is now in its latter stages. The House is likely to vote as early as Friday on its version of telecom legislation that would make it easier for phone companies to get TV franchises to compete with cable television. That bill's provisions did not go far enough for many net neutrality proponents. Senate aides have said Stevens hopes to have a mark-up by the end of June on the Senate version -- which is even less acceptable to neutrality proponents because it merely asks the Federal Communications Commission to study the issue and make recommendations.
Brin's frustration in getting an audience with some lawmakers "looks like a combination of policymakers already choosing sides in a battle between industries and one of the industries not knowing how to maneuver around the Washington lobbying system to get its voice heard," said Gene Kimmelman, Washington policy director for Consumers Union.
Brin's aides said he met Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as well as other members of the House and Senate whom they declined to identify.
"The cable industry and the phone industry have a long history of dealing with policy issues. Their teams have a better understanding of the flows and the timing. Their CEOs are here regularly, and I would be very surprised if their CEOS tried to arrange meetings at the last minute," said Blair Levin, a telecom regulatory analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co.
Google said Brin had made three trips to meet lawmakers in Washington over the past year.
A Google executive testified before a congressional committee earlier this year on its decision to create a Chinese version of its search engine that omits certain political Web sites that country's government does not want users to find. Google and other Internet companies doing business in China came under criticism from lawmakers, and Brin suggested yesterday that Google might reconsider its policy.
Google has also become a target of the telephone industry, which has helped finance a campaign of TV and print ads that suggest the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine company will kill the telecom legislation.
"Americans are about to get a real choice to cable TV. But is Google going to blow it up?" said one print advertisement paid for by TV4US, a group whose financial backers include AT&T Inc., the largest U.S. phone company.
Brin said he had learned only yesterday about the print ad -- which has a TV twin that has been running in Washington markets -- and he appeared surprised when asked if Google might run its own campaign to fight back.
"I think it's worth a conversation. I am probably naive. I was very surprised to see this," he said.
Asked if he thought Google should do more to lobby on the issue, he replied: "We are a seven-year-old company. Having policy that really significantly affects us is kind of new to us. We are doing the best we can. I think we are putting in a pretty good effort, but we don't have, you know, 30 or 100 years, or however long telcos have been lobbying Congress."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.