A Google office.
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How the first great tech fight taught Google to lobby

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, I’m taking you back to the first great tech policy battle — and explaining that the anger over PIPA and SOPA determined a lot about how, and who, Google is fighting today. Plus, Ukraine comes to the antitrust debate, and Zuckerberg’s not getting deposed right now, but Amazon is due in court.

An inside job

Ten years ago, the fight against PIPA and SOPA culminated with millions of everyday Americans blitzing Congress in opposition to the two copyright bills, which they believed would “break the internet.” When the bills went down, it seemed like the political awakening of a genuine pro-web grassroots. Instead, it gave Google the foundation of a new Washington playbook.

Google was probably the least experienced major tech player in the Washington game when lawmakers introduced PIPA in 2011 as part of an effort to combat piracy of movies and music.

  • Plenty of the lawmakers, staffers and rival-industry lobbyists still snickered when they thought of how Google co-founder Sergey Brin had lobbied Congress on net neutrality in jeans and a T-shirt in 2006.
  • The company had already begun, though, to make friends in the Obama administration — and to spend millions every year on lobbying.

At first, Google didn’t mobilize public outrage.Instead, it hired up and tried to fix its problems with a lot of expensive, pedigreed K Street types.

  • After all, Google was facing the possibility that Congress would make it monitor the sites in its results far more vigorously.
  • Google hired 19 outside lobbying firms in 2011, when it had had just four actively working on its behalf the year before.
  • Then it more than doubled its spending to influence federal law and policy to more than $11 million. It plunked down more than $18 million in 2012.

The lobbying, though, produced little. By the end of 2011, senators had added little more to the bill than a study of how much the would-be law might cost websites, and Senate leadership had signaled it was ready for passage.

But Google learned that a successful lobbying operation is more than just having advocates who wear the finest suits.

  • First, there was that grassroots uprising, which Google and many other websites eventually aided by “blacking out” their homepages in January in protest of the bills’ effects.
  • Then there was the power of small businesses to sway lawmakers: A Google lobbyist seems to have watched as Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and others convinced a senator to go from a PIPA supporter to its foremost Republican critic.
  • And finally, there was the security angle: The White House eventually echoed cyber researchers’ concerns about the bill, in what one of the key pro-PIPA lobbyists told me was “the nail in the coffin.”

Today, Google has made plenty of room for the other messengers that saved the day in the PIPA fight, even as the company has somewhat backed off its most ostentatious lobbying budgets.

But Google also seems to have learned some of the wrong lessons from its PIPA victory.

  • In particular, its co-creation of the Internet Association in the wake of PIPA/SOPA leaned into a combination of lobbyist-vetted message discipline and Washington glitz and glam that ultimately made the group pretty useless.
  • The Internet Association collapsed late last year.

The real irony, of course, is that the Google that grew out of its near-death lobbying experience with PIPA was one that the grassroots would have a harder and harder time rallying around. But the company seems to have discovered plenty of other friends who would do in a pinch.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com. Read it here.

In Washington

Broadcasters now have to disclose on the air when foreign governments or their representatives are paying for the time for the programming. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine recently increased scrutiny of Moscow’s state broadcasters on TV and online, the FCC actually adopted the rules last April.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of six House lawmakers wants to know how Meta is dealing with ads from Chinese state outlets.

Tech allies are not being shy about using the situation in Ukraine to argue against proposed antitrust legislation. It’s a variant of something Issie has covered: how to balance competition with the effort to clamp down on small services where misinformation and hate speech thrive. But, as The Washington Post notes, this version seems to ignore some of the actual bill text.

In a virtual speech to Congress on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged American companies to leave the Russian market “immediately, because it is flooded with our blood.”

The White House is backing a House bill that would ban mandatory arbitration clauses that many firms, including tech companies, use in agreements with consumers and workers. The contract terms can touch on employment, consumer protection, antitrust and more. The House is readying a vote on the measure.

Conservative-leaning tech groups are planning a “Day of Action” in early April to push back on antitrust proposals in Congress. Led by NetChoice, the self-described “most aggressive trade association” in tech, the plans include lawmaker meetings and “educational engagements online” on bills such as the American Innovation and Choice Online Act.

California Sen. Alex Padilla and Google AI ethicist-turned-whistleblower Timnit Gebru will speak with POLITICO later today about “the intersection of race, identity, power, and politics” as part of the new Recast Power List.


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In the courts

Amazon has to face an antitrust class-action lawsuit, a federal judge in Seattle has ruled. Crucially, the court found plausible the plaintiffs’ allegations that Amazon’s policy of forcing third-party sellers not to offer lower prices on other sites raised what consumers paid. That contention is key to other lawsuits like the one led by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, itself viewed as a possible trial balloon for a potential FTC case.

A D.C. court is putting the kibosh on Attorney General Karl Racine’s attempt to depose Mark Zuckerberg as part of the district’s privacy lawsuit against Meta over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

On Protocol

The world is already splintering in its approach to crypto regulation, with a tortoise-like EU, a U.K. cracking down on stablecoins and a U.S. that’s still trying to figure out who would even be in charge of this stuff.

The recent passage of the infrastructure law could help take us from having a bunch of semi-proprietary, frenemy EV charging networks to something like the network that would allow all electric vehicles to charge wherever they need.

We’ve got an excerpt from “The United States of Anonymous,” the new book from Section 230 guru Jeff Kosseff. It starts with the fact that policy can be whatever the biggest players like Meta do — not just something courts and legislatures hand down. David and Issie sat down for a talk with Jeff too.

Meta’s rolling out some of the promised new parental controls on Instagram, including letting parents set time limits, get notified when their children report another account and get regular updates on who their kids are following.

How’s it going?

“It was difficult to maintain our business like that,” Axel Medina of El Salvador’s “Bitcoin Beach” said about the country’s experiment with cryptocurrencies in this deep dive from Rest of World.


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Thanks for reading — see you Friday!

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