Google Knows Plenty About Lobbyists and Lawmaking

From Google, where privacy’s just another word, and the idea of augmented humanity is one in which zombies whose memories are stored in Google’s servers shamble around the streets, comes news that we need political reform.

It’s shocking how the system works, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told an editor for The Atlantic at the Washington Ideas Forum. Laws are organized around the incumbencies writing them, and it’s difficult to take on any incumbency, he added. Many of the laws are actually written by lobbyists, he said.

Technology can let us change the entire political discourse if we want to, and can completely change the way government works and the way political discourse works, Schmidt went on to say. For example, Google can measure what’s being said on the Web, and that can be used as an indicator for whether or not those opinions expressed are worth listening to.

Google’s a Political Entity, Too

Let’s examine Google’s possible agenda here. Granted, the company has been flailing about in our political system for years.

In the run-up to the presidential elections back in 2008, Google partnered with PBS through YouTube in the “Video Your Vote” campaign. It got Pure Digital Technologies to hand out 1,000 of its Flip Video cameras, and urged recipients to shoot a video of their voting experience on or before Election Day and submit their footage to YouTube on Nov. 4.

In September, Google announced that it was teaming up with the Politico political website to host an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., at which the increasing contributions of technology to democracy and the political process would be discussed.

Google’s blog post on this Newseum event kicked off this way: “Over the past few U.S. election cycles, Google and YouTube have become catalysts for a more engaging, meaningful dialogue between citizens and government leaders. From asking questions of candidates to finding your polling place, our tools are helping to make elections and politics more personal and democratic, and have opened up Washington, D.C., in exciting new ways.”

Oh, and by the way, Google demonstrated tools built for citizens and government officials using YouTube and Google Maps.

The Path of the Righteous?

If the improvement of political discourse was the only reason Google’s getting involved in politics, why was it showing off tools built for citizens and government officials at the Newseum event?

Have we become so dumbed down that we can’t even find out how to get to polling booths, or remember when polling day is? How did they perform these incredibly complex feats in the pre-Internet days?

One could argue that Google deserved to reap some sort of reward for helping put together the Newseum event. However, a look at some of Google’s other activities seems to indicate it has its own agenda for its involvement in politics.

Google itself has relied on lobbyists, and its spending on them has grown over the years. In 2007, it spent about US$1.5 million; in 2008, close to $3 million; last year, it forked out about $5 million; and, so far this year, it has shelled out about $2.7 million, according to

Earlier this year, Google teamed up with Verizon Communications to jointly propose a set of Net neutrality rules written by registered lobbyists from their ranks. Among other things, these proposals suggested taking away the Federal Communications Commission’s rule-making authority over consumer protection and non-discrimination requirements in the rules.

Further, from what Schmidt said in the interview with The Atlantic, his problem seems to be the difficulty of taking on an incumbency. Perhaps he’s not happy that Google isn’t big enough yet to be one of those incumbencies.

Perhaps not — but it might be big enough to take on small towns and then grow from there. Small towns all across America pretty much sat up and begged when Google announced it would provide high-speed Internet access to up to 500,000 people in the United States at no charge. For example, the mayor of Topeka, Kan., renamed the city “Google” for the month of March. Residents of other cities set up Facebook pages to get Google’s attention.

If Google ends up becoming the sole provider of broadband Internet access to small towns, how much power will it have in those towns? Will Google towns become the new company towns in the U.S., where the largest employer pretty much could do what it pleased?

Tie that in with Schmidt’s statement that Google can measure discussions on the Internet to determine whether the opinions expressed are worth listening to. Then add to the mix the presentation of a report by tech company executives including IBM Chairman Sam Palmisano claiming that new technology can save the U.S. government $1 trillion.

Suspicious minds might conclude that Google and other technology companies are merely trying to boost sales and, in Google’s case, perhaps try to influence the laws written in this country.

The New Political Discourse?

What about technology’s changing the political discourse? Hasn’t Google, through its efforts, opened up the gates of discourse between the electorate and politicians? Isn’t that a good thing?

Of course it is. Any time the people can show their representatives what they truly think, within the limits of decency and safety, you can score one for the masses. Do you really believe, however, that your representative will personally field every email sent by every constituent? Highly unlikely, given the amount of time politicians have to spend on their jobs. Incoming emails will most likely be handled by office staff.

Don’t the videos keep politicians honest because they will find it more difficult to deny what they’ve said when it’s posted up on YouTube?

Well, yes. But that doesn’t stop them, does it? Check out Sarah Palin’s campaign, for example.

Perhaps it’s best to keep in mind that Google is a company, and a company’s business is to make money. Everything it does has to be in line with that aim. This is one time when it’s a good idea to look a gift horse in the mouth.

TechNewsWorld columnist and reporter Richard Adhikari has been writing about high-tech since the mid-1980s, when he was editor of Computerworld Hong Kong. He was editor of Direct Access (now Computerworld Canada) and InfoCanada. He was senior writer at Planet IT and wrote extensively for Information Week, the IW 500, Software Magazine, Client-Server Computing, and Application Development Trends, among other publications. He wonders where high-tech is going but loves it anyhow.

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