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Google Angling for Relevance in the New Washington

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

February 3, 2017

In the tech world, one thing of which you can be sure is that not only is change inevitable, it is necessary for survival. For behemoths like Google, that tenet holds true not only for innovation, but for politics as well. Wanting to be relevant amid the Republican revolution (especially with the man in the White House) Google is trying to change the perception that it is a Democratic stronghold.

At stake are important issues such as net neutrality and antitrust charges. The recent Trump executive order on immigration, on which Google and Silicon Valley depend, just adds to Google’s need to remain politically pertinent.

Given the strong ties it had with the Obama administration, this will be no mean feat. With President Trump’s contentious executive order on immigration, which affects nearly 200 Google employees, the job may be more difficult than first imagined. Google must stand firm with the progressive-leaning tech industry, while at the same time it attempts to reinvent and reposition itself with the more conservative Republicans. Also at issue are a host of policies dear to it, including thorny topics like net neutrality.

When Obama occupied the Oval Office, Google had unfettered access to power and President Obama’s ear. Not only was its parent company (Alphabet’s) chairman, Eric Schmidt, a trusted advisor to him, but Google employees of all stripes generously filled the Democratic Party coffers over the years. In the last year alone, specifically to fund Hillary Clinton’s bid to be Obama’s “third term,” Google employees gave $1.3 million to the Clinton campaign, compared with $26,000 to the Trump campaign, according to federal filings.

It is no secret that during last year’s presidential campaign, Schmidt advised Hillary Clinton on strategy. A photo of him wearing a staff badge at her election-night party circulated widely in the conservative media. Trump’s cohorts have also accused Google of skewing search results to favor Clinton in the campaign.

Moreover, “Mr. Schmidt spent millions and millions of his personal money to defeat Donald Trump,” a key Trump staffer said. “It takes a particular amount of gumption to pretend that never happened.” Just more reason for the massaging that Google must do if it is to be a pertinent player in Donald Trump’s Washington.

Accepting this, Schmidt twice traipsed to Trump Tower before the inauguration, to pay homage to him and to placate Republican leaders. Google has gone a step further, posting a job position for a “conservative outreach” employee in a bid to appear unbiased. Google has pushed back against it being depicted in such a way, saying that it has been involved with congressional members on both sides of the aisles. But its swift alignment with most of Silicon Valley on the recent immigration order already has it on the back foot, and may make the reconciliation task more difficult.

Make no mistake: this attempt at transformation indicates that Google sees itself as suddenly vulnerable without the Obama security blanket protecting it at home, as the EU is taking pot-shots at it from abroad. During the Obama years, Google never faced any domestic antitrust charges, even as European regulators accused the firm of exactly that in relation to its search and mobile businesses.

Another obstacle is that Google was a strong supporter of net neutrality rules in 2015. Those rules are antithetical to Republicans, and are almost certain to be revisited, if not repealed, unless Google and firms like it can alter perceptions among those now in power.

Google is quick to point out that it donated more money to Republican down-ballot candidates, such as for Congress, than Democrats, which may soften the Trump administration’s stance toward it. That and many other cross-party relationships tend to go unnoticed, however, because of the top-tier appointments from Google that peppered the Obama White House.

Google’s head of global public policy, Caroline Atkinson, was Mr Obama’s former national security adviser. A former Google executive, Megan Smith, became the nation’s chief technology officer. Additionally, dozens of government bureaucrats (read: Democrats) were employed by the tech company.

Regardless of its efforts to morph, it is unlikely that Google will play as influential a role within the Trump administration as it did under Obama. Tech mogul and Trump transition advisor, Peter Thiel, will probably see to that. He has compared the power that Google had under Obama to that which the oil giant Exxon Mobil had under President George W Bush. Incidentally, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson will now be Trump’s Secretary of State.

However, like him or hate him, if Donald Trump is one thing, he is not stupid. There is value in maintaining a good relationship with a tech titan such as Google.

What does this drama bode for the average citizen of the world? Maybe it could lessen the harm that the Republicans can do to cherished principles such as net neutrality. And maybe, just maybe, Google and other tech giants could be brought to heel on antitrust matters. That could make tech cheaper for us, and foster unrestrained innovation through more competition.

Image by Denis Linine/Shutterstock.com.
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