Google and Facebook, both growing huge worldwide businesses, both dependent on the Internet—particularly broadband—for their growth, both headquartered in Silicon Valley, could easily be assumed to have similar political interests. Indeed, both of these companies and their top executives funnel the bulk of their political contributions to Democratic candidates, though they also hedge their bets by spreading dollars across the aisle, too. Yet when it comes to specific issues, Google and Facebook have different agendas.
Stronger Rules on Internet Privacy?
Google and Facebook both say they believe in allowing people to control their privacy. But actions speak louder than words:
In 2008, Google joined with Microsoft to push for stricter privacy regulations on behalf of consumers, including telling consumers exactly what information companies are collecting about them. Consumers, the two corporate behemoths argued, should also be able to control how that information is used, and those who collect it should be required to store it securely.
In 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg traveled to Washington to discuss legislation introduced in the House of Representatives that would regulate how online services collect personal data and how they use that to advertise. Zuckerberg argued that while data collected about consumers or users need to be protected, information that is intended to be shared with others falls under a different category. Effectively, he sought to exempt Facebook from new privacy controls, allowing Facebook to automatically share with advertisers some personal data intended for users’ friends.
A Neutral Net or Not?
The U.S. Congress and a number of governments in Europe are embroiled in battles over Net neutrality—that is, whether to allow some Internet service providers and wireless providers to restrict data flow or whether to continue "free" flow of traffic on the Internet. On this issue, Google has joined with Verizon Communications to propose Federal Communications Commission regulations that would require the wired Web to remain neutral but open up wireless networks for greater control and premiums on Internet use. Facebook opposes these regulations, siding with Twitter in favor of Net neutrality on both wired and wireless networks.
In the Lobby
Google has become a heavy hitter in technology lobbying. Its Washington, D.C., office has about 50 staff members, all of them engaged in lobbying or related activities. According to the Senate Office of Public Records, of corporations in the "Computer/Internet" industry that do lobbying, Google, with expenditures of US $5.16 million, ranked third on the 2010 list of big spenders, after Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard.
Facebook is a relative newcomer to Capitol Hill; the company started putting people in Washington on its staff payroll in 2008; it expects this year to have eight full-time lobbyists there, recently moving to an office that could support a few dozen more employees. Facebook spent only about $350 000 on lobbying in 2010.
Schmidt’s Next Move
As of late May, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was reportedly being considered for U.S. Secretary of Commerce to replace Gary Locke, who has been nominated to become the ambassador to China. Schmidt has support from both Democrats and Republicans. Supporters of the high-tech industry tout this as a positive because it would bring someone into the role who understands the importance of technology in the growth of the U.S. economy. Before any announcement or confirmation is made, however, some on the Hill could express concern over an outsider from Silicon Valley taking the reins at Commerce.
Follow the Money
Google executives have been throwing money at a wide variety of U.S. political candidates; added together, however, their contributions skew Democratic. They founded a political action committee called Google NetPAC with a handful of founders and executives, each typically contributing $5000 annually. NetPAC seems to be focusing donations on candidates who have an important influence on technology-related legislation by virtue of either their committee appointments or their home states.