Googling the Hill

Older readers who grew up like me on the east coast might remember a New York sports columnist named Jimmy Cannon. Before offering pithy opinions about boxers and ballplayers, he'd warn you he was about to say something out of turn. He'd write, "Nobody asked me, but…"

Well, nobody asked me, and nobody will ask me, but… hasn't this story been written before?

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.

I remember stories just like it about Microsoft, Intel, America Online, and every other high-tech supernova — admonitions to start spending more on high-powered lobbyists. It's the only time the press portrays lobbyists as anything but enemies of the people, and campaign contributions as anything but barely-legal bribery.

And what's this? "(K)ey Democratic supporters" objecting to "heavily lopside political contributions to Democrats?"

Two possible explanations.

  1. The news media, or at least this reporter (Jim Puzzanghera of the LA Times), wants Google's position on "net neutrality" to prevail, and worries that Google is about to lose the arms race. The net neutrality campaign is all about making sure content providers like Google and Yahoo! don't have to pay a toll to the high-speed carriers like AT&T or Comcast to reach customers.
  2. Like a good boxing reporter who wants a story he can hype, this reporter wants to build Google up so he can knock them down later.

I don't pretend to have any pertinent advice for Google, except for this: Don't expect praise if you follow the Times' advice. Expect the opposite. Lobbyists and reporters are natural enemies, because they compete to be the gatekeepers of public policy. 

Hey, Google: Maybe, in the long run, the times are right for a quirky, not-business-as-usual approach to our esteemed representatives. It seems oddly off-key at this moment when outrage at K Street has reached a climax that a major company would be criticized for not buying into the lobbying game.

Just guessing here: When a high-tech winner starts hiring packs of DC lobbyists, the rise in their stock price begins to level off, or go down. If that's true, of course, I can't prove cause-and-effect. These might be two distinct symptoms of a company like Google reaching a sadder but wiser stage of maturity.

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