Google Goes to Washington

Categories: Tech
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During the SOPA debate, many opponents of the anti-piracy bill often tried to portray Google and the rest of the tech industry as a champion for all that is good and true as opposed to what it really is: an increasingly powerful, self-interested industry like any other. This happened particularly in debates on Twitter, where tech zealots (people who believe that all technological change is good, and who ignore or downplay the negative consequences) revealed their breathtaking naïveté on this question.

It happened that the tech industry was on the right side of that debate. But whenever anyone noted how much power that industry was amassing in Washington, as measured by how much money tech companies (especially Google) were spending on lobbying, the zealots' responses were knee-jerk and full of rationalizations.

This might come back to bite them when it comes time to address issues like privacy and antitrust, both of which are more potentially more important to Google and other companies -- and to the public -- than SOPA was.

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with the tech industry lobbying politicians. It pretty much has to, and the huge ramp-up in spending could be seen as long overdue. On issues like SOPA that pit the industry against other powerful interests (i.e., the media lobby), Google and its cohorts need muscle, or they might lose big.

After SOPA was shelved, it was reported that Google had spent a record $5 million in the first quarter of 2012, proving, some critics said, that the company had bought the legislation off the table. That's a wild overstatement, though surely some of that money went to fighting the terrible bill (which was the House's version of legislation aimed at foreign pirate sites; the Senate's version, PIPA, was slightly less objectionable, and it was shelved, too).

It's impossible to know how much money is spent on which issues, so the question is largely academic -- though some generalizations can be made. Google had spent just $1.48 million in the first quarter of 2011, a year before SOPA was shelved, and $3.72 million in the last quarter of 2011. In the second quarter of 2012, it was reported today, Google spent about $4 million, which is a considerable drop from the SOPA-dominated first quarter, but is much higher than the $2 million it spent a year earlier.

Does the first-quarter spike mean that Google plunked down a huge amount to fight SOPA? Maybe. But the trend over the past year or so has been ever upward; fluctuations occur with the seasons and with which issues are before which bodies in Washington.

Google, and the rest of the industry, has lots of fish to fry. Besides piracy, privacy, and "competition issues" (antitrust), Google cited cybersecurity, immigration reform, and several other issues on which it spent lobbying dollars. By itself, the fact that this quarter's lobbying spend was about $1 million less than the previous quarter's doesn't mean that Google spent $1 million fighting SOPA.

Google is now spending about as much as Verizon on lobbying. The increases simply mean that the tech industry is coming into its own in Washington -- as a self-interested corporate lobby like any other.

Or at least, parts of the tech industry are. Apple, notoriously averse to wading into Washington power politics (which doesn't seem to have hurt it much) spent a typically low $470,000 in the first quarter. Facebook spent less than $1 million, though that's three times more than it spent a year ago, when it was still a private company. Microsoft spent $2 million -- not much.

Maybe the lesson is that the tech industry needs to do some more careful cost-benefit analysis of its lobbying expenditures.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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