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Google's Search for Political Influence

The Internet firm has been slow in learning how to get things done in Washington.

May 22, 2006|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Of the billions of searches conducted by Google Inc., potentially its most important is playing out in offices above an Asian fusion restaurant here: the quest for influence in the nation's capital.

The Silicon Valley company's dominance of Internet search is built on its mastery of advanced mathematical algorithms. But like other fast-growing tech titans before it, Google is finding Washington's political calculus harder to solve.

Since opening its Washington office last summer, Google's attempts to establish its presence has moved at dial-up speed -- resulting in a slow and sometimes balky connection with lawmakers that has irritated both Democrats and Republicans.

"I think they've been a little bit too innocent in how the game is played," said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused Washington think tank.

Google's efforts to rally support for rules guaranteeing open Internet access -- an abstract issue known as Net neutrality -- has been called largely ineffective by key Democratic supporters. Heavily lopsided political contributions to Democrats from Google employees have annoyed the GOP majority. And in what veteran lobbyists called a high-profile tactical mistake, a Google executive called before a House panel this year tried to engage subcommittee members critical of the firm in a debate.

The head of Google's three-person Washington operation is unapologetic for the unconventional company's unconventional strategy.

"Google will always be Google," said Alan B. Davidson, the company's Washington policy counsel. "We're not going to hide. We're going to talk about what we're doing. We think that being transparent and open is the better long-run approach."

But in the short run -- and Washington is a city obsessed with the short run -- Google is proving a time-tested axiom: It may have rewritten the rules for Internet companies, but nobody rewrites the rules of politics.

"Politics is much more of an art than a science," said Rick White, former head of TechNet, an industry lobbying group. "Art is probably too nice a word for it. It's a right-brain thing. These guys really come out of a left-brain kind of world. A lot of them who are very well-meaning, very effective, smart people, still have a hard time intuitively understanding how Washington, D.C., works."

White saw that in the mid-1990s when he was a Republican congressman representing the district that is home to Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. He said he tried to convince Microsoft that it needed a stronger Washington presence.

When the antitrust case exploded in 1998 with a Justice Department suit, Microsoft finally got the message, White said. The software giant now has one of Washington's largest and most effective lobbying operations: an in-house staff of 19, with an additional $8.7 million spent last year on outside firms.

"It's not going to take that long for Google because they have learned from the Microsoft experience," White said. "They're smart guys. They will figure it out."

Google said it planned to significantly increase Washington spending this year to nearly $1 million. That still pales in comparison to rival Microsoft, as well as spending by the phone and cable companies that Google is battling over key telecommunications legislation.

Google christened its Washington operation last year as Congress began weighing telecom legislation that could hinder its ability to deliver video and other high-bandwidth applications. It hired Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an advocacy group in Washington.

In announcing the hiring last fall, Google's senior policy counsel, Andrew McLaughlin described the company's Washington mission in terms he acknowledged sounded "a little high and mighty." Writing on the company's blog, McLaughlin said Google would "defend the Internet as a free and open platform for information, communication and innovation."

Google arrived with some liabilities. Republicans are still rankled that, although they're the party in power, Google employees give almost all their campaign checks to Democrats.

Contributions from high-tech companies often tilt Democratic, in large part because their employees are concentrated in liberal-leaning locales such as Silicon Valley and Seattle. Even so, no other major Internet or computer company has tilted so far to the left.

In the 2004 election cycle, Google employees gave 99% of their $251,679 in contributions to Democrats. Sun Microsystems Inc. was next among the top 20 companies with 76% going to Democrats, followed by IBM Corp. at 71% and Yahoo Inc. at 63%, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The tech industry average is 54% to Democrats and 46% to Republicans.

In the 2006 election cycle, Google has barely changed -- Democrats are getting 96% of its campaign money.

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