washingtonpost.com
Google tries its hand at influence in Washington

By Ariana Eunjung Cha and Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; A12

When someone as influential as Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV requests your presence at a hearing, Washington insiders know it's more of a summons than an invitation.

So for two hours on the morning of April 29, Microsoft, Facebook, the Federal Trade Commission, and experts from academia, think tanks and privacy groups dutifully came to answer questions about children's online privacy.

But another invitee, Google, the biggest online company of all, was a no-show.

Over the past year, Google's critics have expressed concern about the company's growing influence in Washington -- its close ties to the Obama administration and the millions it spends on lobbying. Last week, the nation's deputy chief technology officer, Andrew McLaughlin, was reprimanded for continuing to e-mail with his former Google colleagues about issues related to his White House duties.

On the ground in the nation's capital, though, Google's reputation is more that of a scatterbrained graduate student than of a political operative.

'Viral lobbying'

Google, a once-scrappy Silicon Valley search company that is valued at more than $150 billion, is building an unconventional presence in Washington, with connections to think tanks, education sessions on high-tech issues for legislative staff members and charitable efforts on behalf of high-profile causes.

The company's approach focuses on making smart arguments and the view that those who disagree don't have all the facts. Google employees tend to hand out thick white papers or academic studies. Although they try to put in face time at events such as hearings, cocktail receptions and baseball games, it is usually not to the extent that more traditional lobbyists do, say government officials, legislative staffers, trade groups and competitors.

"We believe that with good information you can make good decisions. D.C. certainly has its own set of rules, but a data-driven approach has served us well," said Mistique Cano, a District-based spokeswoman for Google.

Ralph Hellman, chief lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington trade group, describes it as "viral lobbying." But he said that strategy hasn't always been effective: "They like to make the intellectual argument, but that can only get you so far."

Google declined to comment on Rockefeller's hearing last month. Whether its no-show was an honest oversight, an effort to avoid public questioning at a sensitive time or a deliberate slight, the senator was not pleased.

"It was a stupid mistake for them not to show up, and I say shame on them," Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said at the hearing.

Although Apple, the Silicon Valley computer maker, also declined to accept Rockefeller's request, its presence in Washington has been limited and it doesn't need friends in Washington as desperately as Google does.

An antitrust inquiry into Google's $750 million bid to buy mobile ad firm AdMob was resolved Friday when the FTC allowed it to move forward. But the company still faces questions about its efforts to digitize books and how its board of directors interlocks with that of other Silicon Valley giants. The FTC has opened an investigation into privacy issues related to Google Street View vans capturing data from WiFi networks, and lawmakers and consumer groups have called on the FTC to look into privacy issues related to Google's Buzz social-networking application.

Google built its $23.7 billion-a-year online advertising empire on the public trust engendered by its maverick, environmentally conscious "do no evil" PhD founders. But their style hasn't always been a good match for Washington.

In 2006, when Google co-founder Sergey Brin visited Capitol Hill, he found that he couldn't get in to meet with many of the senators he wanted to because Google had contacted the lawmakers only days before. But by 2008, things had begun to change. Google employees were among the strongest supporters of Obama's campaign, donating about $800,000. Chief executive Eric Schmidt actively stumped for Obama. After the election, three Google executives went to work for the White House.

A $4 million force

Last year, Google spent $4 million on lobbying, 50 times as much as it did in 2003, when it first turned its attention to Washington. Google's spending is still significantly lower than its main adversaries' lobbying tabs: $6.7 million for Microsoft and $14.7 million for AT&T. But it's more than double what Amazon, Yahoo and eBay spent.

As part of its efforts to improve communication between techies and Washington, Google set up a policy fellows program that places about 15 students at think tanks for the summer. In addition, Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, have donated more than $1 million of their personal money to the New America Foundation, which has done a lot of research on open Internet issues that Google is fighting for.

Google's increasingly closer ties to Washington have alarmed Silicon Valley competitors, who worry that the company will get special treatment. Some were irritated, for instance, when Energy Secretary Steven Chu in October chose to give a major policy speech at the Google campus rather than at a neutral location.

"When these kinds of things come up at the same time that Google is under investigation by both antitrust authorities it really sends kind of a strange signal," said Gary Reback, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based antitrust attorney for a coalition of Internet companies, libraries, nonprofits and individuals that is opposing a proposed settlement that would allow Google to commercialize millions of digital books.

E-mails between McLaughlin, previously Google's top global policy officer, and his former co-workers at Google that were released last Tuesday don't show undue influence, but some of it violated a government ethics pledge he had signed. In one case, Alan Davidson, director of U.S. policy for Google, talks about organizing the industry to defend comments by McLaughlin that were getting bad publicity. "[S]ome of those folks will have your back," Davidson wrote.

Google's D.C. office, a 31,000-square-foot space north of Metro Center that includes a foosball table and an old-fashioned video arcade featuring "Street Fighter II," is filled with about 35 staffers (including engineers and sales workers) . The lobbying and communications team is a mix of old Washington hands and recent university graduates. Among the most experienced: Robert Boorstin, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton; Pablo Chavez, former counsel for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); and Johanna Shelton, who worked on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

This team has sought to charm Washington with a strategy of what it calls "thought leadership."

Googlers say that the company has a long-term view of its lobbying and that its goal is to serve as a resource for legislators and government officials who have tech questions. Google often describes itself as a company that is a think tank or a think tank that is a company.

Instead of walking into Capitol Hill offices with "asks" (requests for things such as signatures on letters and public statements or changes to bills) as other K Streettypes do, Google lobbyists and executives such as Schmidt, Brin and co-founder Larry Page like to banter about lofty, idealistic concepts. Topics such as clean energy, the origins of the Internet and the benefits of free trade don't clearly link to Google's immediate business interests. One Senate staffer said Google representatives seem to make a conscious effort not to start sentences with "We" or "Google" but prefer to talk in generalities.

Google's efforts to appear to be above the politicking of Washington have rankled its more traditional competitors.

"They try to portray themselves as a useful Internet tool for the world to use and love, but actually their business model is that of a giant advertising machine. They take too much comfort in the fact that people will only see them as a fantastic and amazing Internet tool and that they won't be held accountable. But that in the long range will backfire," said Hilary Rosen, a longtime industry lobbyist who is now a managing partner of the Brunswick Group. Her firm represents Microsoft, a competitor of Google in online search, e-mail and documents.

John Simpson, a researcher for the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog who was the first to raise questions about McLaughlin's appointment to the White House, said Google's bumbling intellectual persona in Washington is just an act.

"They have an image they want to cultivate, but when push comes to shove, they are as tough and hard-nosed as anybody and as capable of doing all the same sorts of things to throw their influence around Washington. They are good at it," Simpson said, "and they are getting better."

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