By Colin Lecher
on August 10, 2016 11:00 am
For years, Google has been building a lobbying machine that outpaces its Silicon Valley peers, turning the internet giant into a major Washington presence. In 2014, the company surpassed AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast in lobbying spending dollars, and it's been particularly adept at building relationships with the White House. As of March 2015, Google averaged about one meeting a week with the Obama administration, and Google staff frequently move into jobs with the White House, or vice versa. But the figures on meetings and revolving doors don't always show how Google maneuvers those relationships when facing a fight.
The nonprofit group Campaign for Accountability recently launched a project to compile documents about the company's lobbying practices, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The group says the repository of documents will be a resource for monitoring how Google interacts with the government. The first installment, which the group obtained through an independent researcher and shared withThe Verge, features more than 1,500 pages of emails between the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Google employees.
In the email exchanges, Google employees coordinate their messaging with the White House, occasionally steering around divisions within the administration. Nothing in the documents suggests improper behavior; they are a window into Google's high-level work on policy matters, and provide a case study on how deep the company's lobbying efforts go.
In December 2012, Google saw a threat, as thousands of representatives met at the World Conference on International Telecommunications to consider a proposed revision of the International Telecommunication Regulations, which govern how communication services are used around the world. After years, the conference was set to determine whether to bring more of the internet under the purview of the regulations. The US government had a seat at the table, as did Google, which sent private industry delegates to the conference to advise the US.
Google cast opposition to the revision as a fight for internet freedom, and certainly others in the tech industry took that line, although critics argued Google was more interested in preventing increased costs for using global network infrastructure. The emails obtained by the Campaign for Accountability help sketch the anatomy of a Google persuasion campaign, as the company detected and dealt with perceived problems before, during, and after a crisis.
"We're not making any judgements or drawing any conclusions about specific policies that Google has pursued," says Anne Weismann, the Campaign for Accountability's executive director. It's not clear how the campaign is funded, and the group declined to discuss donors, including any who may conflict with Google. "Our only bias is that Google is not transparent enough," Weismann says.
Discussions with the White House started weeks ahead of the conference, the emails show, and the White House alerted Google to an issue early on. R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet Policy, reached out to the company after documents related to WCIT began to leak. "Since Google is mentioned by name several times here, I thought you should see if you haven't already," Edelman wrote to Google Senior Policy Counsel Johanna Shelton, sending her a Forbes article.
As the conference started, Google contacted the Office of Science and Technology Policy with concerns that the State Department would agree to an unfavorable deal. Ross LaJeunesse, a delegate to the conference and then Google's Global Head of Free Expression and International Relations, wrote an email to the White House's Edelman expressing worry that the United States would sign on rather than face "the optics" of being one of the few countries not to.
LaJeunesse wrote that his "read" was that the State Department was "interested in reaching a deal." At the end of the note, he wrote, "Please keep my fingerprints off this, but given our mutual interest in this working out well for the internet/innovation..." Edelman replied that he had faith in the delegation ambassador appointed to negotiate the talks, but agreed that the proposal then under consideration was unacceptable to the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
After Google sensed that potential hurdle, it went to great lengths to convince the State Department that it was making the wrong move. At one point, "Eric" — likely referring to then-executive chairman Eric Schmidt, although his last name isn't mentioned — made a call to Hillary Clinton's office. "I understand that Eric personally called Secretary Clinton's office, which was an impressive show of force," Edelman wrote to LaJeunesse in an email. "I'd be curious to know his reaction to the conversation." It's unclear who "Eric" spoke to: Clinton herself, or a member of the staff. (Schmidt is now a supporter of Clinton's presidential campaign.)
Ultimately, 89 countries out of the 151 participating signed on, with the United States one of those against. It was acomplicated, mixed result: the final decision reached may have been more about signaling what binding resolutions could be made, rather than actually passing such resolutions. LaJeunesse, in an email to Edelman, bluntly said "we lost," although Edelman responded, "The world lost. This treaty now has no legitimacy."
It's difficult to say what role Google, which declined to comment, may have had in the US decision to not sign. But the company and the Office of Science and Technology Policy discussed working for the same cause, even against others in government with misgivings. After the vote, Edelman suggested a "post-WCIT huddle" with LaJeunesse, and again alluded to internal disagreements.
"I'd like to hear your thoughts on what worked, what didn't, and where to go from here," Edelman wrote. "And let me just say what's been said a thousand times: thank you for you and your team's tireless efforts — even amidst adversity within our own ranks — on behalf of the US and the free Internet."
Exchanges between LaJeunesse and Edelman also discussed how to talk about WCIT publicly. "I'm working with DC team for a strategy of how to characterize WCIT (victory, loss or a less manichean spin) and what that, in turn, means moving forward," LaJeunesse wrote. The emails show LaJeunesse and Edelman set up a private meeting, as Edelman wrote that a White House delegate gathering could resolve questions over "how to discuss the issue."
Ultimately, whatever discussions were had about how to discuss the vote, Google continued ringing alarm bells. In a statement later sent to reporters, a Google spokesperson said the vote showed that "governments want to increase regulation and censorship of the Internet."