Google is aiming to mend fences in Washington after a difficult year that saw its public image take a hit and new scrutiny from lawmakers.
The company was embroiled in a number of controversies from Russia’s use of its platforms to interfere in the 2016 election to its influence over think tanks and academic research.
2017 was a long year for the internet giant. In March, Google came under fire from advertisers who pulled millions of dollars worth of ads after it was learned that many of those were running alongside extremist content on YouTube.
Google’s public image took another hit when the company disclosed that YouTube and its advertising platforms were used by Russians to manipulate the 2016 elections.
That disclosure angered lawmakers, who grilled executives from Google, as well as Facebook and Twitter, on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers scolded the companies, saying they should have done more to prevent Russian interference and questioning their claims that they were addressing the issue properly.
“I must say, I don’t think you get it,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told lawyers from Google, Facebook and Twitter during a Nov. 1 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“It is self-evident that in the past election you failed,” added Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Google’s strained relationship with Washington would have seemed unthinkable just a year ago.
The company enjoyed a close relationship with White House officials under President Barack Obama. Google employees frequently met with administration aides on policy and many staffers moved from jobs between the White House and Silicon Valley.
Republicans had raised concerns about the close ties between Google’s top execs and the Democratic party, and the company was taking steps to improve ties with Republicans. But Google also maintained a strong lobbying presence and donated to congressional candidates across the country from both parties.
In 2017, though, the company consistently found itself in damage control mode as it dealt with one controversy after another.
The loss of ad revenue forced the company to quickly remove advertisements from extremist content, even if the content did not technically violate its terms of service. Google also took steps to insure that it would better police content on its platforms by taking down any videos it worried could be problematic.
Google was slow to publicly discuss Russian interference in the election. For much of the year, the company shared very little on how Russians used its platforms, claiming any such action was “limited.” Much of the information that did reach the public came from leaks.
After pressure, though, the company finally met with congressional investigators and turned over its findings regarding Russian influence. And in November, Google’s top lawyer, along with chief counsels from other tech companies testified publicly.
Google also faced blowback in September after it was revealed that a think tank that received money from the company fired an academic critical of Google.
Barry Lynn and his Open Markets team had done research on economic competition for the New America think tank, but were let go after a blog post praising European regulators for issuing a record fine on Google.
The think tank, New America, received significant funding form Google and the family of Google chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt.
Lynn’s team alleged they were fired because of their research. The think tank defended their action but also said they would review their dealings with donors.
Google denied that it had any role in the firing, but the incident attracted the attention of lawmakers, who questioned Google’s influence over academic research.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at the time called the firing “troubling” and warned think tanks not to compromise their influence.
Looking forward, Google is publicly taking steps to turn the page and repair its relationships. The company boasts an extensive government affairs team with extensive lobbying ties and has spent significant money on candidates. That work is likely to pick up with the 2018 midterms approaching.
But many are skeptical of the company’s efforts.
Google committed to sharing more information about Russian election influence on its platform during the hearings. And the company took steps to crack down on violent and extremist content.
Google also quickly took down content that exploited children made changes to prevent advertisers from racially targeting ads.
But the company still faces a tough road ahead.
Some lawmakers say Google is not following through on its promises.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in December that both Google and Twitter had not yet “provided a substantive response” to his inquiries for more information about Russian interference.
Some critics say Google will only respond when its bottom line takes a hit or if there is a serious threat of regulation.
“Google says ‘If you aren’t going to shut me down or cost me money, I don’t care what you think,'” notes Tom Galvin a partner at Vrge Strategies, a D.C. based communications firm. “Those are the only two things that Google takes seriously when it comes to policymakers.”
Critics note that Google only came forward publicly about its findings on Russian interference, 24 hours before its lawyer was slated to testify publicly.
Google declined a request from The Hill to comment.
Alan Rosenblatt, a digital political strategist at the Democrat-aligned Lake Research Partners, said Google often acts slower to controversies because its top executives don’t have the same public profile as, for example, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
“One of the interesting things about it is that the face of Facebook is still Mark Zuckerberg,” Rosenblatt said.
“Who’s the face of Google?”