The grassroots giant: How Google became a lobbying powerhouse

A decade ago, Google won the gratitude of the millions of outsiders who beat back PIPA and SOPA. But the company just wanted to be king of the insiders.

One green chat bubble with a speaker emoji over small blue chat bubbles with speaker emojis

Google, along with most of tech, was going hard on the Washington lobbying game — and losing.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

The entire web suddenly seemed to undergo a political awakening 10 years ago, when users pummeled Congress with millions of pleas in response to two intellectual property bills.

Activists and over 100,000 websites said the measures, known as PIPA and SOPA, would “break the internet.” Within days, proposals that had at first looked unstoppable were dead. Grassroots organizers and web companies big and small jubilantly cast themselves as victorious revolutionaries beating career politicians, Big Business interests and internet censorship.

Foremost among the companies was Google. The search service had perhaps the most to lose if the bills were enacted. After months of fruitless pleas to Congress, Google belatedly helped spread the word to millions about the brewing uprising on Jan. 18 by blacking out its own sites as a symbol of the measures’ potential ramifications.

All the time it courted grassroots activists, though, Google was learning a different set of lessons about playing the inside game: that the voices of users and small businesses could do more than millions spent on fancy lobbyists, that company representatives trying to bend policy could successfully invoke security concerns behind closed doors and ultimately that Big Tech companies needed Washington power just as much as their opponents did.

‘Getting killed’

Google, before the SOPA showdown, was only a few years out from co-founder 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. The company had also recently charted a course for mega-profitability by convincing the Federal Trade Commission its DoubleClick acquisition wouldn’t harm competition.

Google hadn’t yet faced the tide of blowback that has since come to it, where today we see furious lawmakers joining with other powerful industries to try to undermine its business model. But then came the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act, better known by the nickname PIPA. Senators introduced PIPA in May 2011 with the goal of shutting down international piracy and counterfeit-goods sites, in part by getting Google to sever links to them and boost its monitoring of web content under threat of litigation. In October, House lawmakers followed up with their version, the Stop Online Piracy Act, which had an even more expansive notion of copyright.

Google leapt into action, but it didn’t organize a coalition of the very first generation of online content creators or mobilize young voters who had by then spent a decade downloading their favorite movies and music from services like LimeWire. It didn’t even — immediately — urge its users to speak up, the way it had on net neutrality in 2006. Rather, it lobbied: At the end of 2010, Google had been working with six outside lobbying firmsonly four of them actively reaching out to lawmakers and regulators. In 2011, it hired 19 — and it more than doubled its spending to influence federal law and policy to more than $11 million. A dozen of the firms disclosed off the bat they’d be working on copyright, and many of the 70 or so new lobbyists now working on Google’s behalf had once been top staffers to the most important lawmakers in the country. Another was former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt himself.

In 2012, Google would end up spending more than $18 million on lobbying, the most of any tech company.

But by all accounts, the increased investment didn’t do much to stop the bills in Congress, not least of all because the combined power of Hollywood, music labels and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which all supported the measures, was arrayed on the other side.

“We were just doing our job — go up to the Hill, make the case,” said one lobbyist who opposed the bills. “I was going to the Judiciary Committee, getting killed.”

PIPA sailed through the committee unanimously, accruing more than 40 official sponsors as it seemed more and more likely it would succeed in a full Senate vote. The committee did little to change the bill, other than to put in place more notice to companies like Google, and to add a study of how much it was costing those firms.

Then, right before Christmas break, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid filed for cloture on the bill, signaling that it had enough behind-the-scenes support to overcome any obstacles to passage. PIPA seemed destined to pass soon after lawmakers returned in late January — and since bills are generally harder to pass in the Senate, there was little doubt that the similar SOPA would sail through the House.

“From an advocacy standpoint, it seemed pretty clear we were losing,” said Ernesto Falcon, who was then the vice president of Government Affairs at Public Knowledge, where he helped organize weekly calls on which companies, tech experts, human rights groups and progressive activists could coordinate their opposition. “The tech companies were eager to settle.”

Going ‘thermonuclear’

Google, along with most of tech, was going hard on the Washington lobbying game — and losing. But even as big companies prepared to cut their losses, small businesses and grassroots voices were starting to turn the tide of battle, and to teach Google a lesson about just how powerful their voices could be.

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran, for example, had signed on to PIPA in June, only to do a U-turn four days later and become instead a vocal critic of the bill. The sudden reversal, though, apparently came at the urging of businesses much smaller than Google.

As Michael Petricone, the head lobbyist for the group behind the Consumer Electronics Show, tells it, he had attended a meeting with Moran, Google lobbyist Derek Slater and startup figures including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian.

“The tech companies were eager to settle.”

“This is the first time I can remember small companies and startups really getting engaged in D.C. advocacy,” Petricone reminisced at a panel last year. He said Moran told the group: “I’ve listened to your arguments, and I’ve decided you’re absolutely right. I will oppose this bill.”

Such a total change of heart in Congress was essentially unheard of: at least, when corporate lobbyists tried to make it happen.

The discontent among the grassroots that would eventually power that January blackout was also growing outside of Washington, and raising the pressure on Congress without much help from bigger companies. Even in November, tens of thousands of ordinary internet users were already calling Congress to express outrage at the bills and the apparent tech illiteracy on display in the House.

Google was in the midst of its blitzing the Hill with lobbying firms that cost $80,000 per quarter each, and it was slow to notice or join in with the more freewheeling demonstration. Google wasn’t alone: Several companies and organizations dithered at the prospect of so much activist fury.

“They were very lukewarm about engaging in any sort of thermonuclear type of ... social media activity,” Falcon said.

Instead, less well-resourced websites — especially Reddit — formed the early backbone of the blackout plans. Wikipedia, Tumblr, xkcd and the dominant meme factory that was the I Can Has Cheezburger network were among more than 100,000 websites that the blackout’s organizer, Fight for the Future, said participated. Each new website that signed on created momentum and the appearance of consensus that made it hard for larger companies to keep away.

Finally, the day before the blackout, Google said it would join the protest, instantly drawing attention to the cause and rocketing to the top of participant lists.

It worked. In the wake of the blackout, call volume to Congressional offices rivaled the furor over the Affordable Care Act. Lawmakers suddenly couldn’t take their names off the bills fast enough, denouncing them as draconian and illiberal. Leadership withdrew both soon after.

The PIPA and SOPA fights weren’t the last issue that got everyday internet users riled up (see: net neutrality’s later iterations), but they certainly taught Google the power of pushing up the agitation of its users.

“Big Tech platforms all have millions of happy users and have a stake in keeping those users happy,” said Adam Kovacevich, who worked in Google’s D.C. office at the time and now heads up the Chamber of Progress, a group that counts the company as a partner.

Kovacevich’s group’s current message, for instance, comes right from the lessons of PIPA and SOPA: Chamber of Progress has spent months arguing that antitrust proposals being floated today would destroy consumers’ much-loved Amazon Prime and Google Maps. Google has also been urging small businesses to weigh in against the current competition proposals and warning entrepreneurs that the antitrust bills “would have unintended consequences for your business and could disrupt many of the digital tools you rely on every day.”

Google spokeswoman Julie Tarallo McAlister said in a statement: “As we have done in the past, we are working to make clear the unintended consequences that poorly crafted policies could have on the internet and for the products consumers use every day.”

Playing it safe

Despite the lessons Google learned about trotting out everyday users, the company also witnessed and nudged along what may have been the ultimate insider lobbying win during the fight: convincing the White House to tell Americans PIPA was, essentially, dangerous.

PIPA and SOPA ran into serious trouble shortly before the markup, when grassroots activists secured enough signatures to force the White House to weigh in on the bills, which it did, unfavorably. The administration worried in particular that the legislation could drive “users to dangerous, unreliable [Domain Name System] servers” and would undermine steps that were taken to secure DNS, which functions like an internet directory.

Cybersecurity researchers and experts had led the charge on internet safety, but it appears Google was among those bolstering the message: According to White House visitor logs, two company officials attended a Dec. 20 meeting with other anti-PIPA forces when they sat down with one of the authors of the administration’s statement on the bills.

According to some who fought for passage of PIPA, the bill’s opponents got as much from the White House’s statement as they did from all the calls by the angry grassroots.

“The nail in the coffin was President Obama’s statement on it, because then all of a sudden, you lose the Democrats,” said Rick Lane, who worked to advance PIPA and SOPA as head lobbyist for Rupert Murdoch’s U.S. news operations and who also met the White House the day after the anti-PIPA team. “They’re not going to want to buck the president.”

In recent years, Google has also been perhaps the most aggressive tech company repeating the suggestions that bills it opposes would have dire national security implications — an effort that has become a key, if quiet, strategy by Big Tech as it faces regulation. Top Google lawyer Kent Walker wrote in January, for instance, that antitrust measures before Congress risked “ceding America’s technology leadership and threatening our national security.”

A seat at the table

Once it had survived the PIPA/SOPA fight, Google had to look to the future — which began with acknowledging it was almost beaten into policy pulp by superior Washington infrastructure.

Hollywood, the recording industry and others “were largely pursuing an inside-game strategy, because that’s what they had done for years,” said Kovacevich, who cited political donations and longstanding ties with lawmakers.

“The nail in the coffin was President Obama’s statement on it, because then all of a sudden, you lose the Democrats.”

It was all well and good to send millions of dollars’ worth of lobbyists to Capitol Hill in an emergency — even if in the end, the rescue squad came in the form of activists. But Big Content and its decades-old trade associations — the MPAA, the RIAA and others — represented a level of durable clout that Google wanted to develop for its future defense.

Google’s PAC in 2012 more than tripled its spending as compared to 2010, cutting four- and five-figure checks to nearly 150 members of Congress (although presidential election years tend to see big jumps in donations). It also began to build a new lobbying home: Google, alongside Facebook, Amazon and others, launched the Internet Association that year. The group would eventually advocate not just on copyright but also across a range of issues that were important to the industry, including net neutrality, Section 230, high-skilled immigration and digital trade.

“One of the industry’s takeaways from SOPA was this conclusion that there had to be an internet-specific industry body,” said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association. The trade group worked on the bills and counts Google as a member, but Schruers characterizes it as looking beyond internet companies.

The Internet Association was an uneasy alliance from the beginning. It wasn’t the kind of organization that would just start an uprising — like the fight against SOPA/PIPA — that could spiral out of its tight control. It also had real limits on how far it could go: Member companies effectively had veto powers over the issues that the group would focus on, as well as the positions it would take and the statements it would issue.

Though the fight against PIPA/SOPA was successful, Big Tech didn’t love the alliance that had brought it victory. At least one founding company had reportedly preferred a new brand to the existing reputation of NetCoalition, a trade group with similar membership that had been public in its alliance with PIPA/SOPA activists. Many lawmakers saw the deluge of calls and emails as violating Washington’s unwritten rules about what constituted sporting political combat.

The Internet Association was splashy, for a time. Its CEO and his fashionable perma-stubble made sure that, as the techlash heated up years later, polished company talking points and industry do-gooderism got into coverage and hearings. It had a knack for party planning too, once giving awards to both Nancy Pelosi and Ivanka Trump in the same night.

But behind the scenes, the Internet Association’s structure was getting in the way of its mission. In particular, the presence of Google antagonists such as Yelp and Microsoft in the alliance meant it simply couldn’t do work on competition policy. Many of the lawmakers who worked on PIPA and SOPA — including Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Amy Klobuchar and Republican Chuck Grassley — eventually got over their shock and went back to leading the charge against Google once again, often through the lens of antitrust.

In other words, as Google grew past the likelihood of ever linking arms with the grassroots again, the Beltway organization it built was ill-equipped to defend it against charges that it had in fact become a destructive monopoly. Rendered obsolete, the Internet Association collapsed late last year.

Perhaps, though, the group was beside the point by then. What Google got from the PIPA and SOPA fight seems to be summed up by Petricone, who had brought Reddit and other small companies up to the Hill. After the bills were officially pulled, he said, he and other opponents went to a long celebratory lunch at “this nice restaurant in Capitol Hill.” Washington being as small as it is, they ran into some of the same content-industry lobbyists who had just seen their own efforts collapse.

The two groups — one celebrating, one “drowning their sorrows” — largely ignored each other. When Petricone’s group members had had their fill of revels, they went to pay. That’s when a server told them it had already been taken care of.

The pro-PIPA lobby members had paid their check. This round, at least, was on them.

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