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Google makes some missteps as it finds its way in corridors of power
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — Of the billions of searches conducted by Google, potentially its most important is playing out in offices above an Asian fusion restaurant: the quest for influence in the nation's capital.
The Mountain View, Calif., company's dominance of Internet search is built on its mastery of advanced mathematical algorithms. But like other fast-growing tech titans before it, Google is finding political calculus in Washington, D.C., harder to solve.
Since opening its office there last summer, Google's attempts to establish its presence has moved at dial-up speed — resulting in a slow and sometimes balky connection with lawmakers that has managed to irritate both Democrats and Republicans.
"I think they've been a little bit too innocent in how the game is played," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank in D.C.
Google's effort to rally support for rules guaranteeing open Internet access — an abstract issue known as "net neutrality" — has been called largely ineffective by key Democratic supporters.
Heavily lopsided political contributions to Democrats from Google employees have annoyed the majority Republicans.
And in what veteran lobbyists called a high-profile tactical mistake, a Google executive called before a congressional panel earlier this year tried to engage critical committee members in a debate.
The head of Google's three-person D.C. operation is unapologetic for the unconventional company's unconventional strategy.
"Google will always be Google," said policy counsel Alan Davidson. "We're not going to hide. We're going to talk about what we're doing. We think that being transparent and open is the better long-run approach."
But in the short run — and this is a city obsessed with the short run — Google is proving a time-tested axiom: While it may have rewritten the rules for Internet companies, nobody rewrites the rules of politics.
White witnessed that in the mid-1990s when he was a Republican congressman representing the Puget Sound-area district that is home to Microsoft. He said he tried to convince Microsoft it needed a stronger presence in D.C.
Even as a federal antitrust inquiry hummed along, the company stayed small. Its lone lobbyist at first worked mostly out of his car.
When the antitrust case exploded in 1998 with a Justice Department suit, Microsoft finally got the message, White said. The software giant now has one of D.C.'s largest and most effective lobbying operations: an in-house staff of 19, with an additional $8.7 million spent last year on outside firms.
"It's not going to take that long for Google because they have learned from the Microsoft experience," White said. "They're smart guys. They will figure it out."
Google said it plans to significantly increase spending in D.C. this year to nearly $1 million. That still pales in comparison with Microsoft, as well as the phone and cable companies Google is battling over key telecommunications legislation.
Google christened its Washington, D.C., operation last year as Congress began weighing telecom legislation that could hinder its ability to deliver video and other high-bandwidth applications. It hired Davidson, the associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit advocacy group in D.C.
In announcing the hiring last fall, Google senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin described the company's mission in terms he admitted sounded "a little high and mighty."
Writing on the company's blog, McLaughlin said Google would "defend the Internet as a free and open platform for information, communication and innovation."
Google arrived with some liabilities. Republicans are still rankled that, although they're the party in power, Google employees give almost all their campaign checks to Democrats.
Contributions from high-tech companies often tilt Democratic, in large part because their employees are concentrated in liberal-leaning locales like Silicon Valley and Seattle.
Even so, no major Internet or computer company has tilted so much to the left.
In the 2004 election cycle, Google employees gave 99 percent of their $251,679 in contributions to Democrats. Sun Microsystems was next among the top 20 companies, with 76 percent going to Democrats, followed by IBM at 71 percent and Yahoo! at 63 percent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The tech-industry average is 54 percent to Democrats and 46 percent to Republicans.
So far in the 2006 election cycle, Google has barely changed — Democrats are getting 96 percent of its campaign money.
"You don't want to get a reputation for being in the pocket of one party, especially when it's not the party in power," White said.
Republicans control the White House and Congress, where GOP leaders and committee chairs determine the fate of most legislation.
Given Google's relatively small political giving — Microsoft gave 13 times more in 2004 — the ratios could be fixed easily with strategic contributions to Republicans from top executives or a company political action committee, veterans in D.C. said.
Google has yet to do either. Davidson said its employees are free to give as they choose.
"We are not a partisan presence in Washington," he said. "We have a very savvy executive team that understands the importance of Washington and we're committed to building a long-term presence here."
The company raised more Republican eyebrows this spring by hiring a former Clinton administration aide, Robert Boorstin — not to lobby, but to do corporate communications in D.C.
Davidson is a Democrat and had hired only a junior employee and a support person. Republicans expected Google's next major D.C. hire to be a Republican and had passed on the names of potential candidates.
"Everyone said, 'Wait a minute. When are these guys going to get it?', " said one high-tech lobbyist, who asked not to be named to avoid publicly criticizing Google.
Google appears to have gotten the message. Just recently, it announced the hiring of Bush White House aide Jamie Brown for a senior position in Washington, D.C.
It also has shown more political savvy in hiring outside lobbying and consulting firms. Among them: Podesta Mattoon, whose staff includes a former top Republican congressional aide and the son of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and DCI Group, whose leadership includes a one-time top aide to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Jerry Berman, Davidson's former boss at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said Google is on a traditional tech-industry learning curve in D.C. and should not be criticized for trying to hire the best staff.
But in trying to find its way in the nation's capital, Google sometimes has stepped into a common high-tech industry trap: thinking that because the best technology usually wins in the marketplace, the best argument will prevail.
Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president for global communications and public affairs, learned that's not always the case. Called before a congressional committee in February to address Internet censorship in China, Schrage tried to answer hostile questions while executives from Yahoo!, Cisco Systems and Microsoft just stuck to their talking points.
As a result, Schrage was the person prominently featured in news coverage of the hearing, leading to bad publicity for a company whose informal motto is "Don't be evil."
On net neutrality, Google got another lesson when it teamed up with Microsoft and Yahoo! to persuade Congress to prevent phone and cable companies from charging extra to move data-heavy applications on their networks. .
Company executives delivered their message in letters and at congressional hearings but didn't press their case as strongly face-to-face on Capitol Hill as the phone and cable companies, net-neutrality supporters said.
"Congress doesn't always go with the best argument," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.
Eshoo and other House Democratic supporters of net neutrality got so frustrated they intentionally sought a subcommittee vote on the issue last month, knowing they'd lose.
The loss had the intended effect, said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. — jolting many bloggers and grass-roots groups into action. It also woke up Google and the Internet companies to the hard work needed on the issue, he said.
The companies have responded recently, Markey said, but they need to work harder. Some net-neutrality supporters want Google to rally its millions of users by posting a message on its home page.
Davidson said that's not Google's style.
"I think everybody understands that people are not necessarily looking for political messages when they visit their favorite Internet site," he said.
But Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a D.C. technology-advocacy group supporting net neutrality, said that attitude shows Google's political inexperience, an unwillingness to fight "fire with fire" in battling the phone and cable companies.
"The regulated companies have been dealing with the government ... for 100 years. It's in their blood," she said. "The Silicon Valley companies, they'd rather not deal with Washington. But in reality, they have to."
Campaign targets Internet censorship
LONDON — Amnesty International accused the world's Internet firms Sunday of colluding with repressive regimes to curtail online freedom.
The human-rights group launched a campaign against Internet censorship, singling out Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google for complying with Internet censorship in China.
"The Internet has become a new frontier in the struggle for human rights," said Kate Allen, head of Amnesty's U.K. wing.
"Its potential to empower and educate, to allow people to share and mobilize opinion, has led to government crackdowns," she said.
Google has been criticized for cooperating with Chinese censors on its Chinese-language portal, Google.cn. Activists have criticized the company for blocking searches for material about Taiwan, Tibet, democracy and other sensitive topics.
Google says it has to accept the restrictions in order to serve China, and that it believes its presence ultimately will force more openness.
Amnesty identified China, Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria as countries where people had been jailed for expressing views online and for challenging censorship of the Net.
Amnesty's online campaign, www.irrepressible.info, urges Internet users to sign a pledge for online freedom.
The Associated Press
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company