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Google Gets Political

June 24, 2007

As the Washington Post reported this week, Internet giant Google has deployed a substantial lobbying team in the nation's capital. The company, whose corporate mantra is "Don't Be Evil," hopes to avoid Microsoft's anti-trust woes of the 1990's by getting its hands dirty in the gritty world of Washington politics. Of course, when it comes to issues of privacy and censorship, Google's hands weren't exactly spotless.
Google's lobbying efforts are already having an impact. Its bipartisan team of heavy hitters from the Hill and the White House helped fuel a Justice Department anti-trust action against Microsoft over the integration of desktop search functionality in its Windows Vista operating system. Last week, Microsoft relented in a compromise with federal and state officials monitoring the company's five-year old anti-trust consent decree.
Perhaps more strategic, Google is lobbying the U.S. government to view censorship of Internet searches and content as a restriction on international trade. Regimes throughout Asia and the Middle East are increasingly limiting web access and content, a growing problem not limited to China, where Google has over 20% market share. As Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of public policy and government affairs put it, "It's fair to say that censorship is the No. 1 barrier to trade that we face."
And Google's high political profile isn't limited to cajoling the U.S. trade representative. As Perrspectives detailed back in May, Google is hosting 2008 presidential contenders in a series of forums at its Mountain View, California campus. With its visibility, friendly brand, Silicon Valley clout and large potential donor base, Google has become a "must-stop for candidates." Given the role that Google and its web properties like YouTube play in today's campaigns, it's no wonder that John McCain, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have already made the pilgrimage to Google HQ.
But despite its quirky, friendly brand and fervently loyal user base, Google is far from the chaste, K Street ingenue. Google, after all, agreed to onerous censorship requirements from the Communist government in Beijing in order to establish its presence in China. In 2006, a disingenuous CEO Eric Schmidt defended his company's accommodation with Chinese censorship, "I think it's arrogant for us to walk into a country where we are just beginning operations and tell that country how to run itself." That, Google's new lobbying effort suggests, is a job for the U.S. government.
Google has also wrestled with de facto censorship of users and advertisers alike. For example, in April YouTube removed an embarrassing video of John McCain performing his Beach Boys tribute "Bomb Iran." In addition, Google has repeatedly - and arbitrarily - banned advertisers whose web site content it deemed to "advocate against an individual, group or organization." (Perrspectives' own 2004 experience with Google's de facto censorship is detailed in "Google's Gag Order.") Even with its newer, more flexible editorial standard only limiting advertisers whose content advocates "against a protected group," Google's advertising programs remain ripe for abuse.
Free speech advocates aren't the only ones with Google gripes. Privacy advocates are concerned, too. A June 2007 report by U.K. based Privacy International ranked Google at the bottom of 20 Internet service companies in terms of user privacy protections. The report slammed Google, with its dominant market share and extensive, persistent usage tracking database, as displaying "entrenched hostility to privacy." (It should be noted that the Privacy International study's conclusions are hotly contested within the tech community and blogosphere.)
These flirtations with evil-doing, of course, do not make Google fundamentally evil. Google services, after all, indispensable, everyday companions for virtually any web user. The company has also been an economic development engine, bringing hosting facilities and data centers to cities and town far from Google's Bay Area campus. Google has also been supportive with university gifts, individual grants and scholarships, especially for open source development.
But fun and friendly Google is no innocent, either. And as its lobbying machine ramps up its work in DC, this is no case of "Mr. Schmidt Goes to Washington."


About

Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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