Google (GOOG) isn’t hurting for a voice in Washington. Facing increasing regulatory scrutiny, the company spent $5.4 million on political outreach in the first three quarters of 2011, more than it did in all of 2010, and more even than Microsoft (MSFT). But Google also exerts influence in more subtle—and pervasive—ways. Through donations, fellowship programs, and at conferences, the Mountain View (Calif.) company has established a network of ties to advocacy organizations, public intellectuals, and academic institutions. Although independent, these groups and people often take Google’s side in public debates and on national policy issues. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt suggested there are two kinds of lobbying: One is “where you pay an ex-senator to get the current senator to write a sentence into a bill,” he says. The other way—Google’s preferred way—is “to lobby based on ideas.”
The company is hardly the first to cozy up to organizations that share some of its interests. Pharmaceutical makers have been known to fund support groups for patients with illnesses that can be treated by the company’s drugs. Media companies often ally themselves with artists’ organizations to fight copyright abuses, even though the two sides oppose each other on other issues. Still, few technology companies have pursued such campaigns vigorously, in part because the issues they hope to affect (such as bandwidth licensing and patent reform) feel remote to the average citizen. Google’s high profile and “don’t be evil” image has made the public more receptive to its policy agenda.
One focus of Google’s efforts is the debate over the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011, better known as the Protect IP Act. If it’s passed in its current form, the Senate bill would allow the Justice Dept. to seize the domain names of foreign websites “dedicated to infringing activities” and would compel search engines to remove those sites from their listings. Engineers and most technology companies worry the measure could interfere with the underpinnings of the Internet, but groups with ties to Google have been particularly vocal in the debate.
Some legal scholars oppose the proposal on the grounds that it limits free speech, a viewpoint bolstered by sites such as chillingeffects.org, run by the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation and universities including Stanford and Harvard. It tracks demands for websites to remove copyrighted content, and Google has donated $180,000 to the site. Public Knowledge, a Washington (D.C.) public-interest advocacy organization that receives donations from the search giant, came out against the bill. Engage, a Washington political consultancy that works with Google on other issues but not Protect IP, created the website DontCensorTheNet, which lists arguments against the act and encourages visitors to broadcast their opposition through Twitter and Facebook.
Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn points out that Google’s donations to her organization represent a fraction of its budget, and the group has opposed Google on other issues. Patrick Ruffini, the Engage strategist behind DontCensorTheNet, says his site is simply a reflection of his libertarian views. The campaign nonetheless shows Google’s effectiveness in encouraging, or at the very least supporting, groups that hold viewpoints similar to its own. Google did not respond to requests for comment.
Google has relied on this tactic, if it can be called that, for years. Two weeks after the company closed its 2006 deal to buy YouTube, it donated $2 million to the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, which is housed at Stanford Law School. The center announced the money would be used to “establish a balance between the right to access and use information and the ownership of information.” While its website says it “avoids litigation” involving Google, the center does litigate cases that could set precedents that would help the company. In Golan v. Holder, a case before the Supreme Court, the center is arguing that copyright laws need to be weighed against free speech concerns. When YouTube was sued by Viacom (VIA) in 2007, the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, who directed the center when it received the $2 million donation, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that took YouTube’s point of view. Lessig says he did not disclose the donation because he had no role in fundraising at Stanford, didn’t benefit from the money, and it did not influence his thinking. Says Judith Romero, a spokeswoman for the law school: “We do not take money for academic research with strings—either explicit or implicit—attached.” In 2010 a court issued a summary judgment in favor of YouTube. Viacom is appealing.
Google recently announced €4.5 million ($6.3 million) in funding for an Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin at a time when technology companies are struggling with Germany’s strict privacy laws. In October 2010, the company co-hosted a conference, Internet at Liberty 2010: The Promise and Peril of Online Free Expression, at the Central European University in Budapest. The event aimed to promote governmental transparency, free speech, and other ideas hardly anyone would find fault with, but the agenda also dealt with “making sure that platforms like Google aren’t held liable for the content they host.” In the U.S., the search giant grooms future online activists through its Google Policy Fellowship, which offers more than a dozen students a $7,500 stipend each for spending a summer working for groups that tend to agree with the company on Internet regulation.
These subtle acts of persuasion don’t always result in legislative successes. The Protect IP Act is a complicated bill that will evolve as it moves through Congress. But those who oppose it may have an easier time convincing consumers that copyright enforcement endangers free speech because Google’s allies have repeated that message so many times. In Washington, just as online, Google may have found a new way to go around established players and reach consumers directly.