by Jill Barshay, Congressional Quarterly

Part 1, 2

Congressional Quarterly senior writer Jill Barshay.
Photo by Sasha Aslanian

When I started working in Washington five years ago, the first thing I learned was this town is run by lobbyists, not politicians. On my first assignment, I got beaten to a story because a lobbyist leaked the text of a bill to one of my competitors. Then I noticed when senators wrote amendments to the laws they were drafting, they often used the exact same wording. How could this be? "Oh, lobbyists wrote the amendments," an aide told me.

I made a mental note: Make friends with lobbyists.

So I did. And soon I felt like a Washington insider myself, with lobbyists leaking me documents and trying to get me to write stories with their slant. As a tax reporter, I knew lobbyists for lots of businesses. But until quite recently, I had never talked with Google.

The search engine giant is based in Mountain View, California. It didn't have an office here in Washington. And it didn't want one.

"Technology companies tend to look for solutions in other places first, not necessarily with government," said Alan Davidson of Google. "When we see a problem with privacy or an issue with protecting kids online, the first impulse at Google is not, 'Let's pass a law.' It's 'Let's see what we can build to make it better.'"

But in 2005, Google found itself facing a problem it couldn't solve with technology. It wanted government action.

Google's problem is that it needs the Internet, but it doesn't own the Internet. Telephone and cable television companies own the wires that string the Internet together. These telephone and cable firms wanted to makes some changes to their networks that could force Google to pay a lot more than it does now to reach customers on the Internet.

Remember when the Internet was created? People called it the "information superhighway." Let's use that metaphor. Right now, once you're on the highway, travel is free. It doesn't matter if you're sending some email. That's like driving a sub-compact. Or if you're sending a video game or a movie, that's like driving a big 18-wheeler. But with more heavy traffic on the Internet, telecom companies want to build new fast lanes with toll booths.

The head of what is now AT&T announced this toll-booth plan for the Internet.

Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, all the big Internet sites were up in arms. They couldn't ask the Bush administration for help. Republican regulators at the Federal Communications Commission had just decided the Internet should be a regulation-free zone, exactly as the telephone companies wanted. So Google and the other Internet giants had nowhere to turn but Congress. They decided to press for a new law calling for "Net neutrality."

Under Net neutrality, all sites would be treated the same. No fast lane. No slow lane. No new fees for extra cargo. Neutral territory.

Google had to give up its quiet life in Mountain View, California and learn how to fight on Capitol Hill. The company hired Alan Davidson.

He's a former space station engineer who worked for a public-policy nonprofit in D.C. For a technology company like Google, it seemed a perfect fit. But in this battle, Davidson said Google felt like David against Goliath.

"We're eight years old. We're a third grader. We have 6,000 or 7,000 employees. Each of these phone companies has ten times that number of employees at least, ten times our revenues at least," said Davidson.

Alan Davidson, Washington lobbyist for Google, in his D.C. office.
Photo by Sasha Aslanian

And he worried it might not be a mismatch in size only, but also in approach. "We also are not sure that this is the appropriate way to handle ourselves in Washington, to try to hire armies of outside folks to try to influence the political process," said Davidson.

Davidson is up against a big-time player with long experience courting powerful people in Imperial Washington. The phone companies have been regulated as a public utility since the early part of the 20th century. They know intimately how Washington works. They've had to.

Ed Merlis is the top lobbyist for the U.S. Telecom Association, the trade group for the phone companies. In the lobby of his office are several television screens piping in live floor action from the House and Senate. Through a glass wall is a spacious conference room ringed with expensive, cream-colored Italian leather chairs.

Merlis had been paying many visits to the Hill to explain why Net neutrality was a bad idea. "We think that a free market should prevail, that competition should prevail, that opportunities for new, innovative ways of doing business should be allowed to flourish," said Merlis.

Merlis told members of Congress that the telecoms wanted to make upgrades to the Internet so the public can get videos, music and software even faster than we do today. And to pay for those upgrades, the telecoms needed to charge higher fees to big users like Google and Yahoo and eBay. Otherwise, they'll have to pass the cost on to the rest of us. It's a pro-consumer spin.

To get the other side of the story, I headed for Google's new Washington digs. There was no sign. Google shares a rented office suite with several random businesses. It was not what I expected from an innovative Internet giant. Inside Alan Davidson's small office, a framed print of Google's colorful logo is the only sign that this is Google headquarters in Washington.

Davidson plans eventually to rent a new office, "A more Googley office," as he put it. "It will not be a customary K Street office, but ... the plan is that we will get our own space and it will try to be something that evokes Google a little more. I mean, if you go to Mountain View ... it is like a college campus."

Now that he had a lobbying office, albeit temporary, Davidson needed to start lobbying. He tried laying some facts before Congress, with a little spin of his own.

Instead of talking about Google's profits, Davidson talked about the future health of the Internet. He argued that the Net has been a vibrant laboratory for entrepreneurs, but if telephone companies create two highways, startup companies wouldn't be able to afford the fast lane and they'd never win the race.

"We're one of the companies that will be able to pay to play if we need to. It's about the little folks, the next Google," said Davidson.

Google teamed up with like-minded Internet sites, such as eBay, Amazon and Yahoo. Non-profits joined its cause. Democrats were happy to take a stand against President Bush's Administration and volunteered to sponsor bills.

Collectively, they decided their best strategy would be to attach a Net neutrality proposal to a larger bill that packaged together a wide range of telecom issues.

Davidson had ideas, talking points and allies. The first big test was in the House where this big telecom bill was moving through the Commerce Committee, the first step in the legislative process.

Gigi Sohn, President of Public Knowledge, listens during a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing in 2005.
Photo by Chris Greenberg/Getty Images

Gigi Sohn runs Public Knowledge, one of Google's nonprofit allies. She was worried. And as it turned out, her worries were well-founded.

"We just got killed," she said. "We tried to get a good Net neutrality provision put in the House bill and we lost terribly, including losing a lot of folks that we thought would be our friends."

Google and its allies underestimated the power of the phone companies with the GOP. It didn't help that Google employees gave campaign contributions almost exclusively to Democrats. That was a big problem when Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.

Google learned its first big lesson in imperial Washington: It's not enough to be a smart wonky guy with persuasive facts on your side. You need friends at the palace, meaning friends in the party in power. Google snapped into action, pooled its resources with the other Internet companies and bought access.

They hired Republican insiders, including a big gun, Ed Kutler, a Republican lobbyist who was a top staffer for Newt Gingrich.

"I was with Newt for five years," he said. "I like to joke it was 35 years in normal Hill time.

Kutler had built up a lot of political influence in a short time. Now he's the perfect insider with Republicans on the hill. But he had some awkward moments explaining why he was on the same side on Net neutrality as MoveOn, a liberal organizing and fund-raising group and the nemesis of the Republican Party.

"'Your position, that's a MoveOn position right?'" Kutler recalled GOP members asking him. "'MoveOn wants to elect Democrats and get me out of office. They're a left-wing operation funded by a left-wing, radical multimillionaire. Tell me why I should support you on Net neutrality?'"

Kutler needed to find something in Net neutrality for Republicans to like. Kutler seized upon capitalism. The Web, he pointed out, spawns innovation and small businesses. Kutler found a grandmother selling her crafts on eBay who fit his message. It was no accident she was from Alaska.

Alaska is the home of Senator Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee which was writing the telecom bill. Kutler wanted to place a real, live constituent, whose livelihood was on the line, in front of the senator. EBay flew the Alaskan grandmother to Washington and Kutler escorted her to Ted Stevens's office.

"She was extraordinarily articulate explaining what that means to have access to the Net for her small business," Kutler said. "She couldn't afford to pay more money to have access to the Net. She would not have the ability to buy the fast lane."

Stevens's mind was not changed, but Kutler called the meeting, "Washington at its best" with the woman getting a half hour with three of Stevens's top staffers.

While Kutler was helping Google become a D.C. insider, its non-profit allies gathered troops and whipped up support in cyberspace.

Continue to part 2

©2018 American Public Media