Google's effort to build strong alliances with Republican politicians and conservative advocacy groups is paying dividends on Capitol Hill but has created a growing marketing and public-relations headache for the company.
Climate-change activists have shown up at shareholder meetings demanding that executives explain how the firm can, in good conscience, support lawmakers who deny that global warming is a threat.
FOR THE RECORD:
Google: In the Sept. 23 Section A, an article about Google's ties to conservative politicians and advocacy groups gave the wrong first name for the owner of an Oklahoma rooftop solar business who attended Google's shareholder meeting in May. His name is Steve Wilke, not Jim. —
A fundraiser that the company held for Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of the most vocal climate-change skeptics in Congress, touched off a mini-rebellion among Google staff members, along with unwelcome media attention.
And the Sierra Club and major unions, including the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, joined 50 other groups this month in demanding that Google end its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative network of state politicians that, among other projects, works to roll back laws that promote solar and wind power.
Google bowed to that demand Monday, announcing that it would sever ties with ALEC because of the group's stand on climate change.
"The consensus within the company was that that was some sort of mistake," Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said of the decision to join the group.
"Everyone understands climate change is occurring, and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and our grandchildren and making the world a much worse place. And so we should not be aligned with such people — they're just, they're just literally lying," Schmidt said in an interview with NPR's Diane Rehm on Monday.
Environmental activists praised the decision but said they would continue to press Google to change other aspects of its political strategy.
The company is "going in the right direction" by abandoning ALEC, "but it is still funding the campaigns of climate deniers in Congress and on K Street," said Brant Olson, campaign director for Forecast the Facts, an activist group that had played a major role in organizing the anti-ALEC campaign. "It is still shooting itself in the foot in terms of its climate goals."
Lisa Nelson, ALEC's chief executive, attributed Google's move to "public pressure from left-leaning individuals and organizations who intentionally confuse free-market policy perspectives for climate-change denial."
Microsoft, which had come under similar pressure, recently abandoned its ALEC membership.
Like other firms in the tech industry, Google in recent years has become more active in trying to lobby Washington. At a time when the GOP controls the House and may soon control the Senate, the firm is looking to build as many relationships as possible with prominent conservatives.
But playing both sides of the street and hedging political bets fit badly with the company's carefully honed public image. Google has increasingly found it hard to reconcile its progressive Bay Area corporate persona with hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to people and causes the progressive base detests.
Google's politics are complicated. The company receives accolades from green activists for $1.5 billion it has invested in clean-energy technology. It bankrolls some of the most ambitious solar projects on the planet. The company's passions for creativity, innovation and free expression play well with liberals.
But the tech behemoth's agenda in Washington is broad. Many of the issues on which it lobbies, including patent reform, digital privacy and net neutrality, do not fall neatly along partisan lines. As Google cultivates Republican allies on such issues, the progressive blowback intensifies.
"We should not be electing climate deniers into office, and we should not be supporting them in the marketplace," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
"Et tu Google?" was a headline on a report published this month by Forecast the Facts and the Sum of Us, two networks of liberal activists that boast a combined membership of more than 5.2 million.
The groups challenged Google's nearly $700,000 in cumulative corporate and employee donations to lawmakers who have publicly doubted the threat of climate change.
The list of climate skeptics was compiled by another liberal advocacy group, the Washington-based Center for American Progress, which has close ties to the Obama administration. The center, ironically, gets funding from Google.
The latest pressure came after 17 of Google's own science fellows, outraged by the Inhofe fundraiser, questioned the company's moral leadership in a letter last year to its top executives.
Anger over the ALEC ties had prompted several activists to journey to Google's shareholder meeting in May, including Steve Wilke, owner of a rooftop solar business in Oklahoma. He says ALEC-inspired legislation passed in his state is undermining the rooftop solar industry there.
"You continue to fund a group that is actively and successfully destroying renewable-energy markets," he said at the meeting.
David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, thanked Wilke for raising the issue, noting that he was not the first to do so. "We'll continue to review it," Drummond said at the time.