Google finding success in D.C.
Google Inc. arrived here in 2005 like a newly elected congressman: eager to change the world but first needing a little help locating the restrooms.
After some initial wrong turns, the Internet giant now appears to be finding its way in Washington.
Google’s expanding lobbying operation scored two significant victories last year: It convinced federal regulators to approve its $3.1-billion purchase of online ad company DoubleClick Inc., and to partially open new wireless airwaves so the company could more easily make its products available on them.
Though D.C. veterans say Google has a long way to go before its lobbying clout matches its market valuation, the company is no longer viewed as a wide-eyed Washington freshman.
“This is a company that understands what they’ve got to do, and they’re in the process of doing it,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington think tank. “You can’t just get by on good looks.”
Google is making a major statement about its intention to be a player in the nation’s capital. Chief Executive Eric Schmidt today plans to christen Google’s new Washington offices: 27,000 square feet in one of the city’s trendiest new environmentally conscious buildings.
Lobbyists for the Mountain View, Calif., company will work at the site, which is complete with standard Google perks such as free gourmet lunches, a vibrating massage chair and a game room stocked with an Xbox 360 and pingpong and Foosball tables. It’s also a place to show off technology to policymakers on enough large plasma screens to fill a Circuit City showroom.
“We’re creating a little microcosm of Google in downtown D.C.,” said Alan Davidson, who heads the office as the company’s senior policy counsel. “We are here to stay and to have a positive presence in Washington.”
Establishing that presence has been Google’s goal since the summer of 2005 when it hired Davidson, its first lobbyist, from the Center for Democracy and Technology. Google had learned the lesson of Microsoft Corp., which largely ignored Washington in the 1990s until it found itself facing antitrust charges.
With Google’s stock price skyrocketing along with its importance to the Internet economy, many expected the company to build an influential lobbying operation at light speed. But even Google couldn’t alter the basic physics of Washington politics: Gaining clout is a slow, painstaking process.
In mid-2006, Congress was working on a major telecommunications bill, and Google hoped to persuade lawmakers to add safeguards guaranteeing open Internet access. Co-founder Sergey Brin came here to talk about the so-called network neutrality issue but was unable to get meetings with some influential lawmakers. The safeguards never happened.
Google, other Internet companies and public-interest groups were unable to overcome the lobbying clout of major telephone and cable companies, which wanted the ability to charge higher rates for faster access to certain websites.
Some supporters of network neutrality were disappointed by Google’s efforts in its first major entry into a Washington policy debate.
But since then, Google has done the spadework to cultivate influence. It expanded its Washington staff from three in mid-2006 to nine working on public policy and government relations, with a separate communications team of six.
Washington veterans praise Google for some smart, well-connected hires.
Rick Whitt, a lobbyist for MCI Inc., was brought in to handle telecommunications issues. Johanna Shelton, a top aide to Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was hired to handle Internet policy.
And Pablo Chavez, formerly general counsel for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), took the lead in persuading the Federal Trade Commission to approve the DoubleClick purchase.
“They have created a very sophisticated and smooth lobbying operation,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which fought to stop the DoubleClick deal because of concerns that it would harm consumer privacy and Internet advertising competition.
Microsoft, which has become a Washington lobbying power since its antitrust battles, also pushed the FTC to block the deal. But Google won, and then it scored a partial victory on the wireless issue, defeating such well-connected phone companies as AT&T; Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.
In that case, Google wanted the Federal Communications Commission to require some open-access rules on coveted wireless spectrum to be auctioned this month. Google’s team, led by Whitt, met several times with FCC staff and filed detailed papers outlining why opening the traditionally closed wireless world -- where providers determine which applications and phones can use their networks -- would lead to innovative new mobile services.
Public-interest groups had been lobbying for the changes, but Google helped convince the FCC, said Gigi Sohn, president of digital rights group Public Knowledge.
“They stepped up to the plate and they swung for the fences,” she said.
The FCC voted to require the auction winner to allow people to use any phone and download any application they want on the airwaves. But Google’s win was only partial: The FCC refused its request to force winning bidders to sell access to companies at wholesale prices so they could offer their own wireless services. Still, fighting the phone companies to a draw was significant.
“While they certainly lack the experience and firepower of an AT&T; or Microsoft, they’ve got the market position, resources and cachet to keep getting better and grow their impact,” said Bruce Mehlman, a veteran tech lobbyist.
Google also showed its Washington maturity by starting a political action committee.
With its employees giving overwhelmingly to Democratic candidates, Google’s NETPAC has been able to create goodwill on the other side of the aisle by funneling contributions to key Republicans. The PAC has distributed just $53,100 since 2006, but 54% went to Republicans, according to Congressional Quarterly’s Moneyline.
The Foosball table in Google’s Washington offices shows that the company understands the political game. The red players are labeled Republicans and the blue players Democrats. The game room has been dubbed “Camp David,” and the other spaces also have Washington monikers, including “The Secret, Undisclosed Location.” And as in Mountain View, the offices are sprinkled with whimsical touches, including lava lamps and bright exercise balls.
It’s all part of Google’s attempt to feel at home in the nation’s capital.