Google: Searching For Respect On The Hill

Google has repeatedly rankled the GOP. Now it's trying to smooth things over

Google Inc. (GOOG ) has a Washington problem. Since it started hiring for its public policy team last year, the Web giant hasn't snagged a single high-profile Republican. Indeed, Washington's GOP ruling elite isn't giving Google the time of day.

The Republicans can't seem to forgive what they see as Google's leftward tilt. In the 2004 federal election cycle, 99% of Google employees' campaign contributions went to Democrats. For its first lobbyist, the company last May hired Alan Davidson, a Democrat and former privacy policy wonk at the Center for Democracy & Technology think tank. And now Google has taken positions on two issues that rankle many on the Right: rebuffing U.S. government subpoenas to measure how many Google searches are related to pornography, while bowing to the censorship demands leveled by China's communist government as the price of doing business in that country. "It sends a signal that the company doesn't know who its friends are," says a GOP lobbyist.

Davidson says he recognizes Google's GOP problem: "We take the critique seriously," he told BusinessWeek. Google last year had offered former White House aide Dan Senor a key communications job at its California headquarters, but he declined to move. Now, Davidson is in the market to hire an in-house Republican lobbyist in D.C., but so far heavy-hitting GOP prospects aren't biting. "I'd have a hard time explaining [a job with Google] to my friends on Capitol Hill," says one Republican lobbyist.

At least one prospect, Michael Sullivan, an aide to Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.), has given Google the thumbs-down, according to lobbyists. Sullivan declines to confirm or deny the account. Google says it just posted the opening, hasn't made any job offers, and won't discuss specific candidates.

Google may get a first taste of potential repercussions from its GOP problem when it explains its China policy at a Feb. 15 hearing of the House Global Human Rights Subcommittee. "It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is 'Don't Do Evil,' would enable evil by cooperating with China just to make a buck," says the panel's chairman, Chris Smith (R-N.J.). Google says its presence in China will benefit Internet users there more than if it boycotts the country.

Cynics think Google could negate many such criticisms by dangling the right price for an in-house GOP lobbyist. But longer-term, can a company with the motto "Do No Evil" actually do business in Gucci Gulch? "They have to learn how to make Washington work," says Jerry Berman, CDT President. "It's not organized like a Google search engine."

Many in Washington see arrogance in Google's approach. They think the Net giant, which is rewriting the rules of business, wants to rewrite the rules for Washington, too. The company has no political action committee and seems to prefer brokering ideas to politicking. "They're drawing a big bull's-eye on [Google's] head," says a GOP strategist. "Washington has a record in dealing with big, arrogant, growing companies." Remember Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ), whose dismissive attitude toward the capital helped fuel a U.S. antitrust case.

Davidson denies that Google thinks it's above the fray. "We respect how things work here in Washington," he says. "We hope we can use our visibility to make a difference." He recently hired two outside lobbying firms with GOP ties, Gage LLC and PodestaMattoon. And he says the company is considering starting a PAC.

Still, Davidson knows he has only so much time to win friends and influence people. First up is to find some GOP pals.

By Catherine Yang, with Eamon Javers in Washington

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