How Google took on Washington
Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

How Google took on Washington

Source Code

Good morning! The lessons Google learned in the fight over PIPA/SOPA paved the way for it to become the lobbying powerhouse that it is today. I'm Ben Brody, and my hottest take is that I support clock-switching.

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If the suit fits (in)

If you’re old enough to have shared an I Can Has Cheezburger meme, your first experience with tech policy may well have been the PIPA/SOPA fights of 2011-12. That was when millions of everyday Americans helped stop two copyright bills over concerns they would “break the internet.” Google got heaps of credit, too, for publicizing the protest. Although a lot of what the company did during the fight failed, the lessons it learned only fueled a more sophisticated inside game.

Google at the time hadn’t yet faced the tide of blowback that has since come to it. It was only a few years after Sergey Brin’s infamous 2006 trip to Washington, when he lobbied Congress on net neutrality in jeans and a T-shirt.

  • Brin so badly affronted the sensibilities of the dour, suit-wearing capital that his Valley chic still gets eyerolls 15 years later.
  • That’s not to say Google was a shrinking violet in Washington: It spent more than $5 million on lobbying in 2010, and seems to have all but had keys to the Obama White House.

When SOPA and PIPA were introduced, Google started hiring up, hoping it could fix its problems with a lot of expensive 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.
  • It also more than doubled its 2011 spending — more than $11 million — to influence federal law and policy. It plunked down around $18 million the next year.

The lobbying didn’t get much for Big Tech. By the end of 2011, senators had added little more to the bill than a study of how much the would-be law would cost websites, and the measures were considered ready to pass.

But Google was learning from others’ success: A savvy lobbying operation is more than just having advocates who wear the finest suits.

  • There were the activists, who were busy winning the day, mostly in a totally separate realm that made the companies uneasy.
  • But there was also the power of small businesses to sway lawmakers: A Google lobbyist seems to have watched as Alexis Ohanian helped convince a senator to go from a PIPA supporter to its foremost Republican critic.
  • And then there was the security angle: After newly unearthed Christmastime meetings with both sides, Obama’s White House eventually echoed cyber researchers’ concerns about the bills, dealing a serious blow to Democratic support.

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

  • Google and its allies work to get everyday Americans and small businesses to gripe that today’s antitrust proposals will destroy the tech services they love.
  • And Google’s been at the forefront of tech’s extensive, sometimes secretive efforts to suggest that competition proposals are bad for U.S. national security.
  • Many of those antitrust bills, by the way, come from lawmakers who got flayed during PIPA, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who was slammed by Justin Bieber over a semi-related copyright bill.

The Google that grew out of its experience with PIPA was one that was pretty firmly committed to D.C.-style suit-wearing: a company more at ease on Capitol Hill than among activists’ slogan-covered T-shirts. And Google sure seems happy with the lessons it learned.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

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

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People are talking

Fidji Simo is concerned about inflation affecting Instacart:

  • “The model on Instacart is that the grocer sets the price. And so, we reflect that price back to the customer.”

Anonymity and privacy are intertwined, Naval Academy professor Jeff Kosseff said:

  • “Anonymity is really about identity. Privacy is more about the underlying information.”

Anthony Zaccaria said Linktree is helping people bring together all sources of revenue:

  • “We see ourselves … as a platform-agnostic place for everyone to curate their ecosystem, whether they're digital talent that lives in the world of YouTube or TikTok, or they live in the physical and digital world.”

Making moves

Google I/O is set for May 11-12. It'll be mostly online, but a few Googlers and partners will be present live.

Google is buying Raxium, a startup that makes diodes for AR and mixed-reality devices, sources told The Information.

Blake Masters left Thiel Capital to run for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona.

Rebecca Rettig joined the board of Silvergate Capital Corporation. Rettig is the general counsel of Aave Companies.

Alibaba is looking for a new head of SCMP. Gary Liu will stick around until a replacement is found.

Sunny Balwani’s trial was delayed again, this time because a jury member was exposed to COVID.

In other news

Meta is introducing new parental controls that will let parents see how much time their kids spend on Instagram, set time limits for their kids and more. Quest headsets will eventually get parental controls, too.

The Bored Ape Yacht Club launched its own cryptocurrency. ApeCoin will be the "primary token for all new products and services" coming out of Yuga Labs, and will be run by a DAO.

Crypto is now legal in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a bill that allows crypto exchanges to operate legally and banks to open accounts for them.

It’s time to get your own Netflix account. The company is starting a test in Chile, Costa Rica and Peru that will charge main account holders an extra fee for users outside of the household.

Americans are very concerned about tech’s impact on climate, according to a new survey. Nearly three-fourths of U.S. adults think tech companies should play a role in fighting climate change.

DoorDash is giving drivers cash back on gas. The program is one of a few ways ride-hailing companies are handling higher gas prices.

Tesla fired an employee after he posted video reviews of the company’s Full Self-Driving Beta system on his YouTube channel.

Outlook users can now indicate whether they’re attending a meeting in person. Microsoft also announced a new layout for Microsoft Teams and some changes to PowerPoint.

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