- Nov 22, 2003
Gee, wonder which way they'll 'lean.'
The search for influence: Google becomes a political player
The pre-eminent provider of information is moving into the 'real' world to protect its interests
Richard Wray, communications editor
Tuesday October 24, 2006
Last month Washington's political set, always ready for a good gossip, were sent into a flurry of chattering by news that Google had registered a political action committee (PAC) with the US federal election commission.
The creation of Google NetPAC is a first step towards making corporate donations to support candidates seeking elected office. Its foundation less than two months before the mid-term congressional elections, plus the recent appointment of a clutch of Washington movers and shakers to Google's DC office, has observers painting the company as a possible kingmaker.
This side of the Atlantic, Google's chairman and chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has been courted by both main political parties. He lent his Google Zeitgeist conference platform in the summer to David Cameron so he could launch his "happiness" offensive. Earlier this month Schmidt met Tony Blair to discuss the internet, and the next day addressed the Conservative party conference.
Google Europe's hiring policy for its corporate communications unit, meanwhile, also seems to have a political angle as, in the space of a few months, it has brought a former union activist together with the partner of Cameron's chief strategy adviser.
Is the self-appointed organiser of the world's information about to become involved in politics? Or is it just a maturing business beginning to realise that the next challenge may well come from regulators and governments?
Ricardo Reyes, Google's senior manager of global communications and public affairs, maintains that the company will not follow party lines but will focus on specific issues that affect the internet and therefore the business.
"We started this NetPAC in order to be able to support office-holders and candidates who share our vision of promoting and preserving the internet as a free and open platform for information, communication and innovation," he says. "Google has thrived thanks to the opportunities of the free market so we believe it is important to look at policymakers as they make decisions that impact our users and businesses."
This week Schmidt warned an audience in Washington of the struggle Google faced with politicians. "The average person in government is not of the age of people who are using all this stuff," he told a public symposium hosted by the National Academies' Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. "There is a generational gap, and it's very, very real."
Top of the issues list for the company, which has yet to make any direct contributions through the PAC, is net neutrality. Some of the major fixed-line telecoms operators want new laws that would require providers of high-bandwidth internet services, such as video streaming and downloading music, to pay a "congestion charge" to guarantee their traffic gets through. Some of these large telecoms firms, such as AT&T and Verizon, were major political donors in the 2004 election.
While Google would not be hit directly by a two-tier net, its recently acquired online video site YouTube would, and Google fears that splitting the internet could hamper the creation of other innovative businesses.
"Net neutrality is the most obvious issue for us," says Reyes, who worked at the US state department before joining Google. "But ... Congress and the government are going to take on a whole range of issues that affect us on technological fronts, on legal fronts. This is our effort to play in that game."
Google has an impressive list of players on its team. As well as counting Al Gore among its senior advisers, Google's Washington office was set up about a year and a half ago by Alan Davidson. A well-known Democrat sympathiser, he served for eight years as associate director of the Centre for Democracy and Technology, a thinktank that opposes government and industry control of the web. Alongside him is Robert Boorstin, a former Clinton foreign policy aide from the Centre for American Progress, as Google's communications chief in the capital.
Google's PAC will be run by a five-person board of directors who will be guided by the recommendations of an advisory committee made up of Google employees. It will raise its funds through voluntary donations from staff.
But judging from the fact that in the past Google employees have been involved with leftwing groups such as MoveOn.org, it will be very interesting to see where that cash is headed.