With the White House's announcement that it will nominate former Google patent attorney Michelle Lee to be the next director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it's become increasingly clear that it's not just the tech giant's political contributions that have taken hold of Washington.
The company has surpassed Goldman Sachs as a political contributor this year, but Google's ideas about innovating through technology also have a grip on the nation's capital, though not everyone is happy about it.
Lee, for one, was deputy general counsel at Google from 2003 to 2012, where she wrestled with thorny patent issues -- including Google's fight against a Yahoo lawsuit over search software. With the Supreme Court's recent ruling limiting software patents, the U.S. Patent Office is at the center of a debate about how patents and modern digital technologies can live together. (Add into the mix that while the Patent Office's operations have long been troubled, Lee, as deputy director, has been credited by her supporters with introducing Google-like thinking to improving conditions.)
Then there's Megan Smith, who was named the country's chief technology officer last month. Smith spent nearly a dozen years at Google before taking the public office that had been caught in the day-t0-day grind of fraught federal IT projects. Upon her appointment, the White House praised Smith as a "tech evangelist," in large part because of her role at Google X, the company's R&D lab for big ideas. In particular, Smith had her hands deep in SolveForX, Google's collaborative bid to build "radical technology ideas for solving global problems." It's an approach the Obama administration has embraced in recent years, including with its Challenge.gov contest platform.
Joining the White House alongside Smith, deputy U.S. CTO Alex Macgillivray cut his teeth as a Google attorney from 2003 to 2009. Macgillivray is handling Internet policy issues for the White House. He did the same for Google, including advocating for free-flowing access to all the world's information during the landmark Google Books case.
Another former Googler held that portfolio before Macgillivray : deputy U.S. CTO Andrew McLaughlin, who came to the White House fresh from 5½ years as Google's director of global public policy and government affairs.
In between the tenures of Macgillivray and McLaughlin was Nicole Wong, who handled big data and privacy issues -- similar to her portfolio as deputy general counsel at Google from 2004 to 2011, during which she earned the nickname "The Decider" for her role in making calls about what to do with government requests to take down content.
Then there's Mikey Dickerson. He was a Google "site reliability manager" for nearly eight years until, in 2013, he was tapped by the White House to to manage big, database-driven systems, including saving HealthCare.gov. Dickerson is now director of the U.S. Digital Service, charged with spreading sustainable and resilient technologies throughout the federal government.
There are other Googlers worth noting. Katie Jacobs Stanton was with the company from 2003 to 2009 and worked on the social-network standards project called OpenSocial; she later spent a year as the White House's director of civic participation. Vint Cerf, Google's "chief Internet evangelist" for the last decade, serves on an administration committee on advanced technologies. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was a close adviser on Obama's 2012 reelection bid, where he advocated for the power of well-organized data.
The closeness of Google and the Obama White House has, of course, sparked some complaints. To pick a recent example, the White House's embrace of open-source software has prompted some in the Beltway tech world to grumble that perhaps Smith, the administration's chief technology officer, shouldn't be involved in such decisions given Google's advocacy for open-source software, including its Android platform.
But the camaraderie should perhaps be no surprise. In his 2008 campaign book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama wrote in rapturous terms of his 2004 visit to Google's Mountain View, Calif., campus. There he met company co-founder Larry Page. "We spoke about Google's mission -- to organize all of the world's information into a universally accessible, unfiltered, and usable form -- and the Google site index," wrote candidate Obama, "which already included more than six billion web pages." In the years since, Google's index has grown to 30 trillion -- with a "t" -- Web pages, and the company, of course, has gone on to far, far more.
Luke Fretwell runs the civic technology site GovFresh. Working at Google is the west coast tech world's "institutional rite of passage," the San Francisco Bay Area digital strategist says. "Google is to Silicon Valley what Congress is to Washington." How's that? "Everyone either works or has worked there or knows someone who does or did," says Fretwell.
But the coasts are colliding. And it's becoming more and more likely that the everyone in Washington will soon know someone with Google on their résumé.