How Google plays the angles in Washington

obama_schmidt.gi.top.jpgGoogle CEO Eric Schmidt sat down with then-Sen. Obama, who spoke about his committment to net neutrality during the presidential campaign at Google's Mountain View, Calif. headquarters on November 14, 2007.By David Goldman, staff writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Google is barnstorming the nation's capital. Five years after it opened its Washington office, the tech giant is playing an increasingly powerful role in public policy debates over everything from patent reform to foreign policy.

Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) lobbied 13 government agencies last year, spending just under $6 million in the process. That places the search company right behind Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) and Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500) among the biggest tech lobbies in Washington.

alan_davidson.gi.03.jpg
Google's policy chief Al Davidson was the founding member of the company's Washington office in 2005. Davidson testified on Capitol Hill last week about Google's decision to stop censoring in China.

The company employs 30 staffers in Washington and turns to some of the biggest names in lobbying, including the Podesta Group, Dutko Worldwide and McBee Strategic Consulting, for outside help.

Last year, among the 16 bills that Google lobbied Congress on were a proposal to create an investment fund for clean energy and another to publicly detail who is using radio spectrum. Google also advocated for the Federal Communications Commission to support "Net neutrality" -- an unfiltered, and equally accessed Internet.

This year, the company's Washington office has been chiefly focused on freedom of speech on the Internet, particularly because of its highly publicized battles with the Chinese government. Last week, Google's policy chief Alan Davidson urged lawmakers to adopt policies that assure a neutral and open Internet at home and put pressure on foreign governments that censor the Web.

Of course, Google's lobbyists are also kept busy with government investigations of the company, whose growing mounds of information on millions of users have raised privacy concerns. The Justice Department has conducted antitrust probes of a since-expired deal between Google and Yahoo, as well as the company's Google Books online electronic library.

Google's government influence also reaches into the White House. Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt was one of the first and biggest supporters of Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, appearing in a 30-minute campaign advertisement and donating $25,000 out of his own pocket for inauguration ceremonies. Obama appointed Schmidt to the administration's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Schmidt visited the White House twice last year and met with President Obama after speaking at the administration's Jobs and Economic Growth Forum on Dec. 3, according to the White House visitors' logs.

In addition, a handful of Googlers have gone to work for Obama. Among them is Andrew McLaughlin, a global public policy executive at Google who was hired to be the administration's deputy chief technology officer in June 2009.

One of the big boys

The search leader dipped its toe in the water in Washington in 2003, spending $80,000 to lobby over copyright policies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Davidson, the exec who testified last week, became Google's first full-time Washington employee in 2005.

Google mainly concentrates its lobbying efforts on three core issues: open Internet, online privacy and copyright law.

But as the company becomes more than just a search advertising company -- making forays into mobile phones and digital books, for instance -- Google has broadened its Washington focus. In 2009, Google started lobbying the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the Council on Environmental Quality.

"Within the realm of federal lobbying, Google has gone from a veritable non-entity in the early decade to one of the largest lobbying forces among its peers in the United States," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "They're one of the big boys now."

For its part, Google has said that it sees its Washington presence as a "lobby shop-think tank hybrid." Many of the 30 people in the company's Washington office are engineers that work with the government to explain implications of new technologies. The office holds periodic "D.C. talks" events for both government officials and advocacy organizations.

Google's Washington office also often offers its services to the government. It has partnered with the Center for Disease Control to predict flu outbreaks, and it currently has a tool on the Census 2010 homepage that shows real-time response rates for each neighborhood in the United States.

The 'Net neutrality' issue

But even with its enormous presence in government, Google faces an uphill battle on the subject that brought it to Washington in the first place: an open Internet.

As an advocate for Net neutrality, Google supports legislation in which Internet service providers (phone and cable companies) would have to allow equal access to all content on the Internet without restrictions. The phone and cable companies strongly oppose Net neutrality, saying they should be free to block services, such as peer-to-peer networking programs, that disrupt overall quality.

Google won an initial battle on Net neutrality in October, when the FCC voted to move forward on crafting Internet neutrality rules. Despite the early win and Obama administration support, Google is getting out-lobbied by the telecom companies as the issue moves it way forward at the FCC.

In addition to outspending Google (Verizon (VZ, Fortune 500), AT&T (T, Fortune 500), Comcast (CMCSA, Fortune 500) and the National Cable & Telecommunications Asssociation have each outspent Google four-fold in lobbying efforts), the telecoms have been playing the Washington game for a whole lot longer.

"Google is like an ant compared to the guys that it is going up against," said Art Brodsky, communications director at Public Knowledge, which is on Google's side of the Net neutrality issue. "The telecom companies have been around for 100 years. People think of Google as this big colossus, and it is, but in Washington, they're really not yet." To top of page

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