In May 2012, the law school at George Mason University hosted a forum billed as a “vibrant discussion” about Internet search competition. Many of the major players in the field were there — regulators from the Federal Trade Commission, federal and state prosecutors, top congressional staffers.
What the guests had not been told was that the day-long academic conference was in large part the work of Google, which maneuvered behind the scenes with GMU’s Law & Economics Center to put on the event. At the time, the company was under FTC investigation over concerns about the dominance of its famed search engine, a case that threatened Google’s core business.
In the weeks leading up to the GMU event, Google executives suggested potential speakers and guests, sending the center’s staff a detailed spreadsheet listing members of Congress, FTC commissioners, and senior officials with the Justice Department and state attorney general’s offices.
“If you haven’t sent out the invites yet, please use the attached spreadsheet, which contains updated info,” Google legal assistant Yang Zhang wrote to Henry Butler, executive director of the law center, according to internal e-mails obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request. “If you’ve sent out the invites, would it be possible to add a few more?”
Butler replied, “We’re on it!”
On the day of the conference, leading technology and legal experts forcefully rejected the need for the government to take action against Google, making their arguments before some of the very regulators who would help determine its fate.
The company helped put on two similar conferences at GMU around the time of the 18-month investigation, part of a broad strategy to shape the external debate around the probe, which found that Google’s search practices did not merit legal action.
The behind-the-scenes machinations demonstrate how Google — once a lobbying weakling — has come to master a new method of operating in modern-day Washington, where spending on traditional lobbying is rivaled by other, less visible forms of influence.
That system includes financing sympathetic research at universities and think tanks, investing in nonprofit advocacy groups across the political spectrum and funding pro-business coalitions cast as public-interest projects.
The rise of Google as a top-tier Washington player fully captures the arc of change in the influence business.
Nine years ago, the company opened a one-man lobbying shop, disdainful of the capital’s pay-to-play culture.
The company gives money to nearly 140 business trade groups, advocacy organizations and think tanks, according to a Post analysis of voluntary disclosures by the company, which, like many corporations, does not reveal the size of its donations. That’s double the number of groups Google funded four years ago.
This summer, Google will move to a new Capitol Hill office, doubling its Washington space to 55,000 square feet — roughly the size of the White House.
Google’s increasingly muscular Washington presence matches its expanded needs and ambitions as it has fended off a series of executive- and legislative-branch threats to regulate its activities and well-funded challenges by its corporate rivals.
Today, Google is working to preserve its rights to collect consumer data — and shield it from the government — amid a backlash over revelations that the National Security Agency tapped Internet companies as part of its surveillance programs. And it markets cloud storage and other services to federal departments, including intelligence agencies and the Pentagon.
“Technology issues are a big — and growing — part of policy debates in Washington, and it is important for us to be part of that discussion,” said Susan Molinari, a Republican former congresswoman from New York who works as Google’s top lobbyist. “We aim to help policymakers understand Google’s business and the work we do to keep the Internet open and spur economic opportunity.”
Molinari added, “We support associations and third parties across the political spectrum who help us get the word out — even if we don’t agree with them on 100 percent of issues.”
As Google’s lobbying efforts have matured, the company has worked to broaden its appeal on both sides of the aisle. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is a well-known backer of President Obama and advises the White House. Google’s lobbying corps — now numbering more than 100 — is split equally, like its campaign donations, among Democrats and Republicans.
Google executives have fostered a new dialogue between Republicans and Silicon Valley, giving money to conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Federalist Society. While also supporting groups on the left, Google has flown conservative activists to California for visits to its Mountain View campus and a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel.
The company has also pioneered new and unexpected ways to influence decision-makers, harnessing its vast reach. It has befriended key lawmakers in both parties by offering free training sessions to Capitol Hill staffers and campaign operatives on how to use Google products that can help targetvoters.
Through a program for charities, Google donates in-kind advertising, customized YouTube channels and Web site analytics to think tanks that are allied with the company’s policy goals.
Google “fellows” — young lawyers, writers and thinkers paid by the company — populate elite think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the New America Foundation.
To critics, Google’s investments have effectively shifted the national discussion away from Internet policy questions that could affect the company’s business practices. Groups that might ordinarily challenge the policies and practices of a major corporation are holding their fire, those critics say.
“Google’s influence in Washington has chilled a necessary and overdue policy discussion about the impact of the Internet’s largest firm on the future of the Internet,” said Marc Rotenberg, a Georgetown University law professor who runs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog and research organization.