At a recent D.C. conference, author Scott Turow compared Internet search giants to drug pushers.
“We have search engines that exist under the motto, ‘Don’t be evil,’ ” he added in a sarcastic tone. “Please.”
It was more than apparent which company he was talking about.
As House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) embarks on a series of hearings intended on leading to a large-scale review of the country’s copyright laws, the prospect is expected to bring with it a similar frenzy to that which swirled around last year’s SOPA antipiracy fight.
It was that battle in which the tech industry, led by Google, Wikipedia and other Internet firms, demonstrated their aptitude for influence — a talent that had some showbiz lobbyists wondering whether the tech firms’ ability to lead a vast network on the Web to take action amounted to a “Google veto.”
Defenders of Google say such an increased presence is necessary given the longtime ties that content industries have on Capitol Hill, and maintain that the SOPA episode was a response to overreaching legislation that otherwise looked like a foregone conclusion.
“ Historically, Hollywood has been intimately involved in politics and it is kind of a mutual admiration society when it comes to politicians,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “On the other hand, tech is on the rise. It is becoming, if it hasn’t already, the battle of the titans.”
Google spent $18.2 million on lobbying in 2012, almost double the amount it laid out 2011, and more than three times the amount it disbursed in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
By CRP’s estimate, computers and the Internet industry outpaced movie, TV and music last year when it comes to lobbying coin: Showbiz spent $117.6 million on lobbying last year, compared with $132.7 million from computer and Internet firms.
But more telling to Krumholz and other interest groups are the people the search giant is tapping to make its case. The company has 11 registered lobbyists on its D.C. staff of just over 100 people, but it enlisted many more from the capital’s array of lobbying shops to make its case. According to CRP, Google hired 122 lobbyists last year, and 99 of them, or 81%, were former government insiders.
They are former members of Congress, and administration and Capitol Hill staffers who have transitioned from government to K Street. Among them are Susan Molinari, a former Republican New York congresswoman who leads Google’s D.C. office , Krumholz says. “The money translates directly into bodies they can throw at this,” Krumholz says. “They are not just anybody.”
The practice of hiring from among former government figures is not unique to Google; showbiz deploys that same type of influence at an even greater rate. Krumholz says 29 of the 33 lobbyists hired by the Recording Industry Assn. of America had had public sector positions, and 27 of 29 of those hired by the MPAA had held such posts.
“Technology issues are a large part of the policy discussion in Washington these days,” a Google spokeswoman says. “We think it is important to help people understand our business and the work we do to keep the Internet open and encourage economic opportunity.”
However, Google — with concerns ranging from immigration to national security to privacy — has a broader agenda than showbiz, whose lobbyists focus on piracy and trade. Yet with hot-button issues like an FTC antitrust investigation and the SOPA fight off its docket, Google reduced spending on lobbying in the first quarter this year by one-third, and expects it to remain that way for the rest of the year.
The most familiar gripes among content creators, however, are that Google hasn’t done enough to fight piracy. That argument is sure to surface if the White House is able to get Hollywood and other content industries to sit down with search engines to hash out a voluntary agreement to fight piracy — a big “if” that comes down to how much responsibility each side should bear in fighting the hydra head of online infringement. The tech industry — not just Google — has been adamant about not taking on the role of Internet policeman.
Google has argued it is ever better at action on takedown notices, responding to 15 million requests last month, and it has pointed to the benefits reaped by content creators in monetizing the Web via YouTube or other partnerships, gains of hundreds of millions of dollars for the industry each year. Google also notes that it is establishing closer relationships with content creators, with the YouTube Creators Lab in Los Angeles, helping independent artists in particular to break through on the web.
While creatives like Turow and execs like Harvey Weinstein shoot barbs at the Internet giant, studios and the networks are in business with Google and YouTube in content partnerships. And at least publicly, MPAA chief Christopher Dodd has been promoting cooperation with the tech industry.
Even Weinstein has softened his rhetoric. At an MPAA conference in April, he referred to Google and other Silicon Valley firms as “the octopus,” claiming, like Turow, that they were benefiting from piracy via web traffic and advertising. But last week in Sun Valley, Idaho, Weinstein said that “Google doesn’t steal. They’re a great company.”
So will it be darts or detente? The next round of hearings into the copyright laws will show how much — or how little — things have changed.
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