WASHINGTON - Slowly but surely, the government is getting Googled.
Two years ago, the Google staff in Washington was one person - Alan Davidson, an expert in technology law. Now the staff numbers a dozen, including lobbyists with close ties to both parties, and several other lawyers and lobbyists on retainer.
“I’ve never seen a tech company ramp up faster then they have in the last year or two - they’re using all the tools in the lobbying tool kit,” said Ralph Hellmann, a top lobbyist for a tech trade association.
Google’s Washington office keeps growing to do old-fashioned lobbying along with projects that live up to the Google brand, such as pushing for greater access to government records.
Google lawyers and lobbyists try to protect the company’s ever-expanding products and acquisitions from antitrust challenges. They defend the company’s business dealings in China and other countries that censor the Internet.
And they succeeded this week in their complaint with the Justice Department that Microsoft’s Vista operating system was anti-competitive. After first dismissing the complaint, Microsoft agreed to make changes in Vista to make it easier to use non-Microsoft search programs.
This fall, Google will move from Pennsylvania Avenue to more spacious quarters near the traditional K Street corridor of lobbying shops. Its brand is also becoming more visible.
On Capitol Hill, top Google operatives give “Google 101” cram courses to staffers on Web-based tools to help constituents and make their bosses look good. Senators returning from Iraq now use Google Earth and Google Maps to give multimedia presentations on their trips.
As presidential candidates make the high-visibility pilgrimage to the “Googleplex” in Mountain View, contributions from Google employees quietly help boost the campaigns of congressional candidates. Early donations are important to give “momentum” to candidates who support `an open Internet,” company lobbyist Jamie Brown explained.
This week, Google’s Washington team jumped into the hot-button debates on immigration, net neutrality and presidential politics, launching a new public-policy blog designed to raise Google’s profile and get more input from users.
The overall goal for Google “is to bridge the gap between the innovative things Google is doing and the policy makers who are trying to keep up with all the new technology,” said Adam Kovacevich, Google spokesman in Washington.
“We’re trying to approach government in a `Googley’ way - some things we’re doing are traditional and some aren’t,” he added.
This is not easy to do, said one Internet analyst, Micah Sifry, who closely follows online politics. He sees a culture clash, with a constantly evolving company that has become a global symbol of innovation laboring in a political world that is hidebound and inefficient.
Much of Google’s work in Washington is explaining what the company does, how government can use its tools, and reminding policy makers that many small businesses rely on the search and advertising giant.
“The vast majority of my time is spent educating people about the company and its economic footprint,” said Brown, one of the chief lobbyists. She worked for the Bush White House and helped steer John Roberts and Samuel Alito through the Supreme Court confirmation process, and now helps organize the “Google 101” seminars on the Hill.
Davidson and Brown were scrambling last year when Google fought battles on two fronts - defending its business deal with China, which censors some subjects in Google’s online searches; and a protracted, complex fight with large telecom and cable companies over future Internet pricing and regulations.
Those issues are unresolved. Google’s Bob Boorstin, a former national security expert in the Clinton administration, is negotiating with human-rights groups, other tech companies and investment funds to agree on best practices for Internet companies doing business in countries that practice censorship.
“We’re at a tricky point, but I’m very optimistic we’ll reach an agreement by the end of the year,” Boorstin said.
Some of Google’s most recent hires will deal with specific issues and disputes. Makan Delrahim, a former top antitrust attorney in the Bush administration, is on retainer to defend Google’s proposed $3.1 billion acquisition of the digital ad firm DoubleClick, which will be reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission.
One new hire, Johanna Shelton, worked as a senior counsel for Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. That’s the committee that handles almost every business issue that could impact Google.
Shelton has worked on copyright legislation, a huge issue with Google and its subsidiary YouTube in disputes with publishers and entertainment companies. She may also work on Google’s recent proposal to use an auction model, based on the company’s own ad auctions, for future unused broadcast spectrum.
Next year the Federal Communications Commission will consider ways to auction valuable spectrum space made available as television broadcasters move from an analog to digital transmission in 2009. A digital signal needs far less spectrum.
“That will be a big opportunity to expand access to the Internet,” Davidson said. Google has made no decision on whether to make its own bid, he added.
Another new hire in Washington, John Burchett, will work with state and local governments on the company’s growing interests, including new data centers. Burchett was chief of staff for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Michigan Democrat.
The overwhelming majority of political contributions from Google executives have gone to Democrats, so to improve its outreach to Republicans, Google last year added on retainer two lobbyists who were GOP senators - Dan Coats and Connie Mack.
Google is pursuing some long-term projects that reflect its pledge for Internet openness, including its new blog on policy issues. It has joined with Microsoft and Yahoo to help federal agencies develop more user-friendly search of federal data.
Google’s push into traditional lobbying and political activity has some critics. Sifry, co-editor of techpresident.com, said Google is missing an opportunity to leverage the loyalty of millions of users to create a different model for lobbying.
“The telecoms and cable companies have been greasing palms in Washington for decades, and you end up playing the game they wrote the rules for,” Sifry said. “Google could reach millions directly and avoid that game.”
But Google officials say the search giant is wary of making appeals to its users. In the meantime, the company will methodically pursue its current lobbying strategy, with outreach to both political parties on several fronts.
Short-term gains may be tempting, but in Washington, Brown said, Google is focused on long-term success.