After years of enjoying a close relationship with the Obama administration and other Democratic leaders, Google’s parent company Alphabet is increasingly showing signs that it’s cozying up to Republicans as it adapts to new leadership in Washington.
But Alphabet also finds itself in a bit of a tricky position, trying to curry favour with a White House that has already put forth policies counter the company’s culture and business interests, like the immigration ban from predominately Muslim countries.
On Monday, about 2,000 Google and Alphabet employees from around the world walked out to protest the immigration ban, and company leaders like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, co-founder Sergey Brin and other execs spoke to those gathered.
It was the biggest anti-Trump demonstration from a tech company, following the flood of statements from practically every major CEO or leader in the industry.
For all the public display of discontent, Alphabet is hardly shunning the new Republican-controlled government. As a for-profit public company with vast business interests tied to US policy, Alphabet can’t afford to disengage with the government. And as a result the company is taking a more pragmatic approach behind the scenes, ramping up lobbying efforts in Washington and looking for ways to get closer to the Trump administration.
Getting closer to Republicans
At the end of last year, Alphabet parted ways with the Podesta Group, a Democratic-leaning lobbying firm led by Tony Podesta, the brother of Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chairman John Podesta, Bloomberg reported.
Alphabet had worked with the Podesta Group for 12 years, and Bloomberg noted that the timing coincided with a Google job posting for someone to spearhead “conservative outreach.” However, a source familiar with Alphabet’s relationship to the Podesta Group said to Business Insider that the lobbying firm was actually the one that cut ties because it was asked to do so by Oracle, another big tech client which is a Google competitor. The Podesta Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
This month, The New York Times reported that Google financed a swanky party in Washington in a partnership with the right-wing news outlet The Independent Journal Review. The party took place the day after the new Congress’ first day, and most of the lawmakers in attendance were Republicans, the Times reported.
In December Alphabet CEO Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt attended the so-called “tech summit” in December at Trump tower with then President-elect Trump, along with other notable tech leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. But that meeting wasn’t the end. Schmidt was spotted in Trump Tower again about a month after the tech summit, although it’s unclear what he and Trump discussed.
Schmidt also met with Republican legislators Johh Thume, who chairs the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and House majority leader Kevin McCarthy before visiting Trump tower according to the New York Times.
What does Alphabet have to gain?
Google has worked with both Republicans and Democrats in the past. And the company spends millions of dollars every year lobbying across both sides of the aisle — in 2016, Alphabet spent more than $15 million on government lobbying.
For Google and Alphabet, there’s a lot at stake.
Google was the target of an FTC investigation several years ago that alleged anti-competitive business practices (the case was closed without charges in 2013). An unfriendly FTC in the new administration could potentially take another look at Google’s business practices, especially as the company continues to face antitrust investigations in Europe.
Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire and advisor to Trump, has criticised Google’s power in the past and is said to be leading the search for a new chair of the FTC, according to BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed also reported that Schmidt has had trouble gaining favour with the Trump administration, and Google’s preferred candidate for FTC chair, Joshua Wright, is unlikely to be picked.
At the same time, Thiel has written before about the merits of monopoly power, so there’s still a chance his FTC pick wouldn’t want to go after Google again.
It wasn’t always this way
Although Google’s DC office has plenty of Republican staffers, including former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari, who runs the office, the perception has been that Google’s activities leaned more to the Democratic side of political aisle, especially the Obama administration. For example, President Obama hired longtime Googler Megan Smith to be the country’s first CTO. Google also hired Obama’s national security adviser Caroline Atkinson to run public policy. And Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt served on Obama’s presidential science and technology advisory board.
“We’ve worked with both Republicans and Democrats for over a decade, advocating policies to encourage economic growth, innovation, and entrepreneurialism,” Molinari said in a written statement to Business Insider. “We’ll continue to do exactly that.”
Schmidt also had ties to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, providing funding to a software company called Groundwork that provided technical services for the campaign. Schmidt was even spotted wearing a “staff” badge at what was supposed to be Clinton’s election night victory party, something that caught the attention of Wikileaks and conservative media outlets.
Despite the efforts to get closer to Republicans, there are signs that Google is already bristling at some of the new administration’s policies.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a memo to staff last weekend criticising Trump’s executive order that banned immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries. And Sergey Brin, one of Alphabet’s co-founders, was spotted at San Francisco’s airport protesting the immigration ban, and spoke out forcefully against the ban at a rally at Google headquarters on Monday.
Monday’s protest at Google campuses across the world flooded social media with photos and videos of cheering employees and company leaders slamming the Trump administration’s immigration ban. Soufi Esmaeilzadeh, the Iranian-born Google employee, told her story to those gathered at the company’s Mountain View campus.
Esmaeilzadeh was flying from San Francisco to Zurich when Trump signed the executive order banning immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries. After contacting Google’s immigration team, and was told it would be best to stay in Zurich indefinitely, fearful she’d risk deportation if she came back to the US. After a federal judge issued a narrow ruling on the ban Saturday night, Google immediately booked
Esmaeilzadeh on a flight back to San Francisco.
Brin, himself a refugee who came to the US from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, delivered the strongest words during the demonstration.
“I think it’s important to not frame this debate as being ‘liberal’ versus ‘Republican’ and so forth,” Brin said. “It’s a debate about fundamental values, about thoughtful policymaking and many of the other things that I think are — apparently not universally adored — but I think the vast majority of our country and our legislators and so forth support.”
Schmidt also spoke out against the same administration he’s tried to get close to at a meeting with Google employees last Thursday, according to BuzzFeed. Schmidt said he thinks the Trump administration will continue to do “these evil things” such as the immigration ban, according to the report.
Finally, Google is donating $2 million and matching another $2 million in employee donations to the ACLU and other groups to battle Trump’s immigration ban.
Another fight brewing
There’s also likely going to be growing concern at Google and other large tech companies as the Trump administration considers changes to the H1-1B Visa program that allows companies to hire workers from other countries. As Bloomberg reported, those changes would require companies to give priority to American hires first.
Such an order could severely limit tech companies’ ability to recruit the talent it needs. Google, Facebook, Amazon, IBM, Apple, and just about any other company you can think of are consistently among the top sponsors of H-1B Visa holders, according to My Visa Jobs.
Business Insider has reached out to most major tech companies regarding potential changes to the H-1B Visa program. All have either not responded or declined to comment until more information is available.
If you have an information about how Alphabet’s leadership is handling Trump administration policies, you can anonymously email [email protected]