Few companies are as closely aligned with the Obama administration or the Democratic Party as Google.
Google managers and employees gave generously to President Barack Obama's candidacy. Chairman Eric Schmidt stumped for the president and is a member of the White House council for science and technology. Marissa Mayer, a Google vice president, hosted an Obama fundraiser. Former Google employees now hold high-ranking positions with the administration.
Despite those close ties, Google is now taking a much more bipartisan approach than before. Word coming out of Washington last week was that leading up to a September 21 appearance by Schmidt before a Senate subcommittee investigating whether the company threatens competition, Google managers began reaching out to Republicans. Google hired Republican lobbyists and gave money to conservative think tanks and candidates, according to The Huffington Post. Some of the groups that received Google money are the Heritage Foundation, the Republican Governors Association, and the Republican Attorneys General Association, to name a few. Google even cosponsored a Republican debate with Fox News.
More might on right
Just how Google may benefit from all this is unclear. During Schmidt's testimony in the Senate, the lawmaker who asked the most pointed questions was Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Still, the company has received one recent show of support from the right that caught lobbyists on the left, as well as those from the film, music, and software sectors, off guard.
A group known as the Tea Party Patriots came out last weekend against the Protect IP Act (Pro IP), a bill introduced into the Senate in May by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). If passed, Pro IP will hand authorities the power to speed up the process of taking down Web sites accused of trafficking in counterfeit or pirated materials. The bill is supported by numerous senators from both major political parties. Critics, who include Schmidt and other tech leaders, say Pro IP is a threat to free speech and will chill innovation. They argue that the government would possess blanket power to silence any site it wished without providing due process.
The Tea Party Patriots slammed the legislation in a Facebook post (the group has more than 800,000 followers), as noted by TheHill.com, a blog that covers national politics. "Have your own Web site?" the group wrote, "Maybe the government will shut it down tomorrow...without any notice to you. Republicans are going to introduce this (bill) in the House, Democrats in the Senate. What? Big labor, Hollywood, U.S. Chamber of Commerce all in this together...against you."
The Tea Party Patriots is a political group that promotes fiscal responsibility and smaller government. The group doesn't appear to have taken a stand on copyright issues before last week.
What supporters of Pro IP suspect is that Google is somehow responsible for the Tea Party Patriots' new found interest in copyright. Mistique Cano, a Google spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that Google has not given money to the organization. Asked about other connections between Google and the group, Cano did not respond.
Google's political operatives?
Those connections include Patrick Ruffini, a Republican political consultant who has acknowledged working for Google. In addition to attacking Pro IP on Facebook, the Tea Party Patriots posted a link to an editorial in an Oregon publication that was critical of the bill. The editorial was co-authored by Ruffini. Neither he nor anyone from the Tea Party Patriots responded to interview requests.
Then there's Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University professor who is one of the most notable proponents of free content and less restrictive copyright laws. Last week, he co-hosted a gathering called the Conference on the Constitutional Convention. The conference doesn't appear to have had much to do with copyright, but Lessig's fellow co-host was Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
This Lessig-Meckler connection triggered warning bells among Pro IP supporters. Managers at the Hollywood studios and major music labels have long seen Lessig as one of their main antagonists on the issues of file sharing and copyright law. He and Google are believed to share similar views on the free flow of information. Google, of course, has made a fortune off aggregating and distributing information and has often butted heads with content owners over copyrights. Some content owners believe Google would love to see copyright law scaled back.
In his book "Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business," author Robert Levine writes that Google has donated millions of dollars to academic programs started by Lessig. In 2006, Google donated $2 million to the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. Lessig founded the center and at the time was its director. Levine wrote that Lessig was willing to bend the rules to accept the money.
"Although the center's policy only allows unrestrictive gifts that can be used for any purpose," Levine wrote, The center "announced that Google's donation would be used to 'establish a balance between the right to access and use information and the ownership of information.'" Levine added that much of the work the center does involves challenging copyright laws in ways that would benefit Google.
Lessig did not respond to an interview request.
Microsoft is after Google
Google is well within its rights to lobby politicians. Some lawmakers have responded to Google's bipartisan efforts in this area by asking what took them so long.
For a model on how to get things done in Washington, Google need only look to Microsoft. The software maker and Google rival began building a lobbying machine back in the late 1990s, when the company was under scrutiny for its own antitrust issues. That machine was present in the halls of the Dirksen Senate Office Building just prior to Schmidt's testimony last month. Microsoft's public-relations executives were working the throng of journalists outside the hearing room, pointing to any and all information that would appear to incriminate Google for antitrust violations.
Schmidt avoids a Gates-like disaster in D.C.
Lawmakers may subpoena Google to antipiracy hearings
Senate notes: Schmidt's Apple plug, Google piracy issues
So, Google can argue that the company's lobbying efforts are an act of self-defense. But what some copyright owners want to know is: If Google wants to throw its newfound political muscle behind killing Pro IP, why do that from the shadows?
If it's true that Google is quietly helping to stir up opposition to Pro IP, one reason the company may want to keep a low profile is that it is also trying to strengthen ties with the entertainment sector. Google needs licenses to build out the company's cloud-music service, launched earlier this year. It needs TV shows for Google TV. Google-owned YouTube needs feature films for its burgeoning online movie rental service.
Google must show content owners and lawmakers that it is willing to take action against online piracy. On the other hand, Pro IP would heft extra Web-policing burdens on Google's shoulders--something company managers have long maintained shouldn't be their job and is difficult to accomplish. Google has suggested that one answer may be in developing a technology to sniff out piracy, like the filtering system YouTube relies on to locate and remove unauthorized clips. What all this means is, Pro IP is a tightrope walk for Google.
Piracy has "affected our business with the content companies on whom we critically depend," Schmidt said during his Senate testimony. "So we're under great pressure to resolve this with a good technological solution. If I may add, the core problem is that you can look at a Web site and you can tell that it's copyright infringement (he snapped his fingers) just like that--the problem is a computer can't."