By Burt Helm Call it a rite of passage: Google (GOOG), the once-upstart search outfit with the sparse homepage and a motto championing "Democracy on the Web," has hired its first full-time lobbyist in Washington and plans to staff up more. Google has picked technology-law expert and Washington veteran Alan Davidson to help win friends and influence people on Capitol Hill.
"Our mission in Washington boils down to this: Defend the Internet as a free and open platform for information, communication, and innovation," Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, wrote in an Oct. 6 company blog.
The move to beef up lobbying coincides with forays by the online giant Google into a host of new markets and services beyond basic Web search (see BW Online, 09/05/05, "Google's Grand Ambitions"). While many of its new ventures have wowed consumers, they've brought Google into conflict with old-media stalwarts and telecom behemoths alike. Print for Libraries, a plan to scan and index millions of the world's library books, has publishers fuming and prompted a group of authors and the Authors Guild to sue Google for alleged copyright infringement (see BW Online, 09/22/05, "For Google, Another Stormy Chapter").
"A GROWN-UP COMPANY." Google's push into other communications, including Internet-calling service Google Talk and a plan to provide Wi-Fi for San Francisco, threatens to tread on turf dominated by the biggest phone carriers, including Verizon Communications (VZ) and SBC Communications (SBC). Meanwhile, privacy advocates have raised concerns about how Google tracks and stores search data.
With an overhaul of landmark telecom legislation pending and legal battles brewing, Google needs to widen its influence in Washington while its developers dream up pie-in-the-sky projects in Silicon Valley. "The company is bleeding into so many new sectors and businesses that there are any number of government policies the company should be involved in," says Blair Levin, a managing director at Legg Mason and a former chief of staff at the Federal Communications Commission.
"It really shows they are becoming a grown-up company," says Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual-property attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The Internet companies are belatedly realizing that they can't ignore Washington."
Davidson, who joined Google on May 31, is well-suited to wave the company flag in the nation's capital. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained computer scientist and graduate of Yale Law School, Davidson served for eight years as associate director of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit think tank and initiative group that opposes government and industry control of the Internet, while advocating user privacy.
A background in privacy is of particular importance, notes Levin. After all, Google's method for tracking and archiving user data fundamentally affects search, its core business. "When I think of what could go wrong with them, a privacy issue could be much more damaging than losing out on some universal service issue," says Levin. "It's important both from a consumer perspective and a policy perspective...that Google stay out in front of concerns of privacy."
Google's top priority will be "to create a free and open Internet," according to Davidson. "I've been very focused in my previous work on advocating for consumers and Internet users, and I find myself doing very much the same work for Google," Davidson says. He declined, however, to delve into specifics. But within this broad goal, Google says it will focus on three major categories: Copyrights and fair-use policy, intermediary liability, and "Net neutrality."
LIABILITY FOR BLOGGERS? Each is directly intertwined with one of Google's nascent businesses. With the Print for Libraries and Google Video projects, the company has said it plans to digitize both copyrighted books from libraries and video from television networks -- and make it all searchable. These efforts have come under fire from both the publishing and entertainment industries.
Intermediary liability has to do with ensuring that the government treats the company as a neutral provider of tools rather than holding it liable for all of the content held in its search results, or on the blogs created on the Google-owned Web-log-publishing tool "Blogger." "With Blogger, Google is becoming a pretty prominent Web publisher...presenting a whole new set of issues" says von Lohmann.
One of the most contentious regulatory battles may fall in the realm of telecommunications, and specifically "Net neutrality," the idea that an Internet service provider should cease efforts to hobble the performance of other sites and services in favor of their own.
BABY-BELL BATTLES. Moreover, while Google hasn't completely tipped its hand, recent activity points to a strong move toward providing consumers with data and voice service. Along with the bid for Wi-Fi in San Francisco, the company has helped fund Current Communications, a technology company that provides broadband Internet service over power lines. Also, Google last summer launched Google Talk, its free voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) service.
These moves could have Google running headlong into huge telecom players that would just as soon keep cities out of the business of providing city-wide Wi-Fi. Google's challenge: Continue to push back the Baby Bells on this issue. Also, Google has said it would oppose efforts by network operators to block their customers from reaching competing Web sites and services.
"Should they be able to speed up their own sites and services, while degrading those offered by competitors?" McLaughlin asks in the blog. "What's better: [a] Centralized control by network operators, or [b] free user choice on the decentralized, open, and astoundingly successful end-to-end Internet? (Hint: It's not [a].)"
"THEY'VE ARRIVED." Davidson and his associates will be able to outline such views when they weigh in on any overhaul of the Telecom Act, just now getting under way. The House Energy & Commerce Committee says it wants to introduce a bill later this month -- and is working on a second draft after having circulated a first one and received comments back.
The first version of the law contains language hinting the committee is on board with Google's view of the world. The Senate Commerce Committee is not as far along, though it's expected to start drafting a proposal soon.
Google's lobbying effort will only grow from here, says company spokesman Steve Langdon, as it plans to add more staff in Washington. Just a little over a year after its IPO, analysts hardly find this surprising. "It signals that Google's part of the mainstream now," says Scott Cleland, CEO of the Precursor Group. "It's a milestone that they've arrived in mainstream corporate America."
While Google may still like to cultivate the image of a light-on-its-feet, devil-may-care startup, it's beginning to act like the $80 billion industry heavyweight it really is.
With Catherine Yang in Washington
Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York