Google Goes K Street

[Editor's Note: This op-ed originally appeared on CNet News.]

Google is setting up a political operation in Washington and collecting big-name lobbyists with Republican connections faster than you can search the Web for Jack Abramoff.

At first, I thought it was another of those famed Google April Fools' Day jokes, just a week early. They may have pioneered a new business model, but they're apparently relying on politics-as-usual. The question is, why do they have to?

Google argues that it has to play the game to maintain the ability of all Internet users to get quality, high-speed access to the Web. If the Internet service providers -- Comcast, TimeWarner and others -- are able to charge for transmitting information over the pipes, the Internet could become segregated into haves and have-nots. This is why Network neutrality -- or Net neutrality -- is important, and it is a good thing that Google is opposing the ISPs on this.

Google wants "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible." But what doesn't make sense is the choice to abandon unconventional ways. Google appears to have embraced the rules of the so-called K Street Project. For a decade or more, Republicans in Congress have used the K Street Project to strong-arm businesses to hire only Republican lobbyists and to make donations only to GOP candidates.

Google has hired Washington powerhouse lobbying firm Podesta Mattoon. Though known as a bipartisan firm, Podesta Mattoon will probably hand this account to Lauren Maddox, a former staffer for Newt Gingrich. And Google has retained public relations flak Stuart Roy, recently of indicted Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay's staff, to direct its political PR and strategy. They are also setting up a D.C. office and have hired old Republican hand Harry W. Clark, who claims the company will soon hire a political director with ties to Republicans.

And it won't end with hires: "The folks I've talked to," Clark told The New York Times, "everybody recognizes that the employee contributions were weighted heavily toward Democrats, and they're waiting to see a course correction." (Since 2001, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Google employees have donated $361,294 to federal candidates, parties and political action committees, with all but roughly $10,000 going to Democrats or their allies.)

But is a course correction the right move? Is there a better way to conduct politics, perhaps found within Google's own business model?

What would a true Google approach to politics look like? It probably wouldn't wear a suit, charge $500 an hour or perpetuate an exclusive campaign finance system in which a few well-connected corporations, interest groups and wealthy donors win out while the rest of us get left behind. Google has retained public relations flak Stuart Roy, recently of indicted Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay's staff, to direct its political PR and strategy.

Take the Net neutrality debate. Instead of obeying consultants in Washington who will urge Google executives to give more to Republicans (or to Democrats if they take back Congress), what if Google worked to hand the Net neutrality issue over to the people? Instead of setting up an office in Washington, what about setting up a virtual campaign center on the Web?

Let's make this debate about what is right about democracy in America by engaging citizens and asking them to join the fray. Americans don't need a clash of the corporate titans, with both sides claiming to be pro-consumer. We don't want to be spoken for. If Net neutrality is won with an insider strategy without engaging real people, it will be fought all over again next year.

It's time for some new, citizen-focused paradigms in politics, in how campaigns are run -- like the Clean Elections bill moving through the California state legislature -- and in how people relate to elected officials on important issues. It is already happening all around us with open-source approaches to politics like CivicSpace and Colorado-based ProgressNow, the political blogosphere with sites like DailyKos, and online fundraising. Why would Google place its bets on K Street rather than nurturing, pioneering and accelerating this innovation and change?

"Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one," company founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin said when they announced the innovative IPO auction almost two years ago.

So, Google, what shall it be? A complete political upgrade? Or politics as usual?

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