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Google's Spreading Tentacles of Influence

The search giant has ties to important organizations that help sway public opinion

Google 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. 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.