Google Still Searching For Recognition in D.C.
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
Two minutes before his introduction on stage yesterday, Google chief executive Eric Schmidt walked across the ballroom of the Willard Intercontinental Hotel unnoticed by most of the pinstriped crowd dining on crab cakes and tenderloin.
Google has transformed the Internet. But the executives who have made billions from Internet searching -- and who get mobbed by geeks in the San Francisco Bay area and praised by analysts on Wall Street -- barely stir the kind excitement in Washington generated by, say, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her outfit at the State of the Union address.
Washington hasn't been a frequent pit stop for Google executives, but the company is trying to change that as it tangles on more issues requiring some policy savvy. The company has bulked up its lobbying operations and yesterday brought in Schmidt, who spoke before a crowd of 200 for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He held forth about the democratic nature of the Internet and how it is empowering people all over the world. Afterward, he took his message to Capitol Hill, touting Google's position on key Internet policy issues to the new Congress.
He spent face time with Pelosi, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), the company's local representative who is also on the subcommittee.
Schmidt's tour around the dome also included visits with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who introduced a bill to remove taxes on Internet access and e-commerce. Discussions centered on "net neutrality," or measures that would bar telephone and cable service providers from charging Web-based companies for priority access to the Internet. Schmidt also discussed government initiatives to help small businesses with technology and to improve education in math, science and engineering.
It was a strong showing, compared to the last time a big Google executive was in town. Google co-founder Sergey Brin swooped into Washington last year, decked in jeans and silver mesh sneakers, trying unsuccessfully to score meetings with members of Congress. He was caught unawares by an inside-the-Beltway public-relations campaign directed against his company.
This time, it was Washington that seemed a bit out of step.
During the question-and-answer session, one gentleman raised his hand with a question for Schmidt. It was about his Microsoft Outlook e-mail.
Whenever someone in his company sends an e-mail, 20 people are copied, and all recipients tend to hit the "reply all" button, generating too much e-mail, the man complained. "We spend more hours getting less done," he said.
"Well," responded Schmidt, "we have an e-mail product that is free." There's not much Google can do about corporate culture, he said.
During his speech, Schmidt spoke expansively about technological change affecting society, using buzzwords like "convergence" and holding forth about the future of high-speed 3G mobile phones. Eyes glazed over.
But if Schmidt found himself in unfamiliar territory, he didn't look it. He donned a dark suit and a red tie to address a similarly dressed, mostly white-haired crowd. (Some wore bow ties.) Schmidt, who said he grew up in the area, tried his best to connect the interests of Washington and the Internet.
"So, how many people knew there was a video involving the word 'macaca?' " Schmidt asked, a verbal wink-wink referring to Google's recent purchase of YouTube, the online video site. Republican Sen. George Allen's loss to Democrat James Webb "may have turned on this issue. . . . The power in Congress turned over," Schmidt said.
"Thank God!" yelled a woman in the crowd.
By the time the clock ran out on Schmidt's 25-minute speech, more than a third of the audience was gone.