In February, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story urging regulators to break up Google because the company abuses its dominance in search to crush promising competitors. The next day, representatives from two conservative think tanks published blog posts defending Google and attacking the article’s call for antitrust enforcement. Both think tanks have received funding from Google. Both blog posts referenced studies by a professor who has received funding from Google. In one post, the study referenced was published in a quarterly journal owned by third think tank, which has also received funding from Google.
In a company-wide meeting a couple of weeks later, on March 1, Google’s public policy team described the blog posts as the fruit of Google’s efforts to build deeper relationships with conservatives, according to an audio recording of the meeting reviewed by WIRED. The recording of a contentious hour-long meeting offers a window into how Google thinks about its relationships in Washington, DC, its sensitivity to claims of political bias, and how executives explain to employees actions that some view as at odds with Google’s values.
The meeting was led by Google’s US director of public policy, Adam Kovacevich, who explained that the company had to adjust its government-relations strategy after Donald Trump was elected, particularly since Republicans also control the House and Senate. “I think one of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives,” Kovacevich said. “I think we've recognized that the company is generally seen as liberal by policymakers.”
Pichai is scheduled to appear Tuesday before a House committee probing Google’s alleged bias against conservatives. In prepared testimony released late Monday, Pichai emphasizes Google’s neutrality and says the company employs many conservatives, libertarians, and military veterans. “I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way,” Pichai says. “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”
The company wide-meeting, portions of which were previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, occurred shortly after Google was among the sponsors of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where speakers included white nationalists and conspiracy theorists. At the conference, Google held an invite-only reception, which Kovacevich said “built a lot of good will” among conservatives, and “tangible outcome[s]” like the two blog posts defending Google.
“Just to give you an example, last weekend The New York Times Magazine cover story was all about breaking up Google,” Kovacevich said. “Among the people who wrote op-eds and blog posts rebutting that Times piece were two conservative think-tank officials who we work with closely—one from the American Enterprise Institute and one from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who both attended [the reception].”
Kovacevich told Google employees that the company was at greater risk of regulation because the “extended crush phase” between big tech and American politicians is “probably over.” The concern extends beyond Republicans, he said, particularly on antitrust, where both the left and the right are questioning whether Google should be broken up. That could mean years of "invasive investigations" or limitations on products, he said. Google declined to comment.
James Pethokoukis, the author of the AEI post, told WIRED he had not attended CPAC in a number of years. “[N]o one at AEI tells me what to write or not to write,” he said in an email. “We have no corporate policy positions—meaning the think tank does not have a position on policy issues. Each individual scholar takes his or her own positions. And my positions are based solely on my appraisal of the issues involved on their merits.” In a statement, a spokesperson for CEI said, “CEI’s consistent opposition to antitrust predates many companies that seem dominant today, including Google. And CEI has consistently opposed efforts by large companies to use government regulation to entrench their position.” AEI and Professor David Evans, whose studies were quoted, did not respond to requests for comment.
“One of the directives we've gotten very clearly from Sundar [Pichai, Google’s CEO], his leadership is to build deeper relationships with conservatives.”
Adam Kovacevich, Google director of US public policy
At the company-wide meeting, Kovacevich acknowledged that many Google employees were unhappy that the company had sponsored CPAC. Some were particularly irked because Google executives had pledged in 2012 not to sponsor the conference again, after a similar uproar. “[I]t can be hard sometimes to reconcile our business interests with our stated values, and finding that balance is something that our team has to navigate, really, on a daily basis. And it's gotten more and more complicated—more complicated than it used to be.”
The recording also offers candid insight into Google’s efforts to stop or water down two then-pending pieces of legislation, most notably a bill aimed at inhibiting sex trafficking that also removed some protections shielding internet companies from liability for the content on their platforms. “We've worked really hard behind the scenes for the last nine months to try to modify that bill, to slow it down,” said Kovacevich.
He said negotiations over the bill showed how Google sometimes works with people who do not “align 100 percent with our views.” He pointed to Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), whom he called “one of our most helpful champions” on protecting internet companies. “He totally understands the value of intermediary liability and the value of the internet, but his record on climate change, on guns, on the travel ban are probably not ones that many Googlers would support,” Kovacevich said. “This is a dilemma that we face all the time.”
Google parent Alphabet and its employees were collectively the second-largest donors to Goodlatte’s campaigns in 2018 and 2016, according to Open Secrets. Goodlatte’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Kovacevich also discussed Google’s effort supporting an amendment to a 2008 Illinois law that limits uses of biometric data. “We lobbied against that law. Today that law means we can't offer certain products,” such as Google’s Nest Cam IQ, a version of its home-automation system, or an Arts and Culture app, he said. “So we're actually actively working to to change that law.”
Google’s efforts to reach out to conservatives long predated Trump’s election. They began in earnest around 2011, spurred by antitrust concerns, including a Congressional hearing where then chairman Eric Schmidt “was lectured by a Republican senator who accused the company of skewing search results to benefit its own products and hurt competitors,” reported The Washington Post. (In other words, the same subject as that New York Times magazine article.)
The strategy Kovacevich articulated during the meeting—reaching out to think tanks, academics, and such—was formalized during that time. That means influencing “not only the people in power but also the people who influence them,” he explained.
“Oftentimes we find that a member of Congress is actually very persuadable on one of our issues”—they just need to hear Google’s arguments from voices they trust, Kovacevich said.