Has Google Lost Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Mentality By Lobbying?

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In its sixteen-year history, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOG) has cultivated a particular reputation; from its earliest days, the company’s stated mission was to “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Plus, its unofficial slogan is “Don’t be evil.” Despite the search engine’s brief entanglement with the Free Trade Commission, which investigated whether Google’s dominance of Internet search presented antitrust concerns, the company has maintained its top-seeded corporate reputation.

In its 2014 tally, Reputation Institute placed Google in first place, alongside The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS). “Google has been successful in building a perception of caring around the world,” Reputation Institute executive Kasper Ulf Nielsen told Forbes following last year’s rankings, in which the search giant also tied for first place. “They are seen as a company that treats their people well.”

However, while Google has worked to reflect the image of a corporation that “can make money without doing evil,” its critics argue that the tens of billions of dollars the company earns annually being directed to corporate lobbying could be doing some evil. “Google’s influence in Washington has chilled a necessary and overdue policy discussion about the impact of the Internet’s largest firm on the future of the Internet,” as Marc Rotenberg — head of the watchdog organization, Electronic Privacy Information Center — told the Washington Post. His statement very clearly represents the perspective of those privacy proponents who believe that Google’s participation in the game of political influence has inappropriately shifted the national debate away from Internet privacy policy, where any significant changes could hurt the company’s business.

In contrast, Google insiders argue that the company’s involvement in lobbying is rooted in necessity. “I don’t fault Google for playing that game, in which big companies use their money to buy advocates and allies,” Andrew McLaughlin, who served as Google’s first director of global public policy in Washington, told the Post. “Given where the company is today, the fiduciary duty it has to shareholders and the way Washington works, it’s a rational judgment.” To no small degree does Google’s new stance on lobbying suggest that the company’s dislike of the capital’s “pay-to-play” political culture has evolved.

What is clear is that Google is now one of the top corporate lobbyists in Washington D.C. After going public in 2004, the amount the company spent on lobbying was so low that Google ranked No. 213 on the Center for Progressive Politics’ list of top spenders. But in recent years, federal lobbying spending has grown, and the company now makes corporate lobbying expenditures at levels similar to the largest U.S. corporations active in Washington. The search giant came second only to General Electric (NYSE:GE) in corporate lobbying expenditures in 2012 and took fifth place last year.

Currently, Google’s lobbying expenditures are diverted to approximately 140 business trade groups, advocacy organizations, and think tanks, according to the company’s voluntary public disclosures. That figure represents a two-fold increase since 2010. The documents show that Google made political contributions to seventeen lawmakers and assorted committees, including $15,000 donations to both the Republican and Democrat Congressional and Senatorial Campaign Committees. Google lobbied numerous politicians regarding issues from intellectual property enforcement to musical licensing to standard essential patents.

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