Google, master student of Washington

Google, according to a recent article by the Washington Post, has mastered the soft game of Washington influence.

Sure, the search giant has evolved its lobbying game beyond the one-person shop it opened nine years ago to become one of Washington’s top spenders.

But Google shows it knows how to win with the indirect approach — supporting academia, public interest groups and think tanks. Its funding of these and other groups, both right and left, continues to grow, according to the article.

That’s not surprising, of course. But in one case, Google appeared sensitive to the appearance that it was a behind-the-scenes hand helping with prep for an academic conference at George Mason University’s Law & Economics Center, a “free-market-oriented law center,” as the Post describes it. The center has for the past few years received an annual Google donation, including $350,000 last year.

The center puts on conferences that are often attended by federal regulators and congressional staffers in the midst of investigations or working on legislation related to the search giant.

As the Post described it, Google found a willing partner at GMU, particularly as the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust investigation into Google’s search business stretched into a second year:

The staff and professors at GMU’s law center were in regular contact with Google executives, who supplied them with the company’s arguments against antitrust action and helped them get favorable op-ed pieces published, according to the documents obtained by The Post.

The Post provides emails between Google and the GMU center staff, including a back-and-forth over minimizing the appearance that a May 2012 event might look too Google-heavy. Ultimately, the FTC settled its patent case with Google and voted to close the search investigation.

The Washington reaction to Google’s influence game: So?

Jon Leibowitz, the former chair of the Federal Trade Commission, told the Post that “it didn’t bother me that a lot of people were building events around the possibility of the FTC investigation…That’s sort of life in the big city, and both sides were doing it.”

As a journalist who covered the FTC Google investigation, Leibowitz’s assessment of the Washington influence game seems right.

But maybe there are more questions for academic institutions such as GMU. There’s the issue of transparency, although I’ve appreciated talking to professors who seem to have been briefed by one company or another over an issue.

But when it comes to conferences, there’s a practical, editorial concern: If you don’t offer all sides, it’s often not that newsworthy.

Daniel D. Polsby, dean of GMU’s School of Law, told the Post that while Google provided suggestions for one conference, “I think it would misrepresent this conference to suggest that it was a Google event.”  The center discloses that it gets support from Google, he added.

Above: Google’s logo. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)


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