October 3, 2022

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And, through a previously little-publicized program, Google is carefully expanding its soft power by building relationships with progressives of color.

Documents seen by Protocol reveal that Google has spent years fostering its Next Gen Learning Community, a network of people of color who are interested in tech policy. Several of the participants have influential perches in politics or culture — even as Google flies them to its campuses, seeks to impress upon them its view of issues like Section 230 reform and watches them connect with some of the very same lawmakers who have turned up the heat on Google.

Next Gen participants who spoke with Protocol portrayed the program as a vital link between people of color, who are underrepresented in tech policy, and said it provides a forum to bring criticisms to the tech giant. But the program also echoes one of Google’s most potent and under-discussed Washington tactics: its long history of winning friends in the tech policy community even when it’s not trying to influence people. Part of that effort is burnishing its image in the eyes of sometime-opponents without demanding they become supporters — but also without always addressing their concerns quickly.

Meetings on the Hill

The Next Gen program appears to go back to 2016, when it was created by top Google staffer Chanelle Hardy. According to her LinkedIn profile, Hardy had previously held prominent positions at the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, in congressional offices and with major consumer and civil rights groups. That likely made her a natural fit to oversee policy partnerships for the company when she joined it that year.

In an invitation to an event hosted by the program in 2021, she wrote that the program was designed to “inform Next Gens about key topics in tech policy and racial justice.” Hardy also laid out Section 230, content moderation, intellectual property policy and the future of work as “key focus areas.” The invitation and a list of participants was shared exclusively with Protocol by the Tech Transparency Project, an ethics watchdog that has done extensive research into Big Tech’s influence networks, including Next Gen.

TTP’s research reveals that, despite the emphasis by participants on the program’s networking opportunities, Google kept close tabs on the growing voice of Next Gen participants in the policy conversation. For instance, one presentation, which was publicized by someone who did branding work for Google, noted extensive meetings with policymakers by Next Gen participants, appearances on panel discussions that focused on tech issues and more.

Members of Congress clearly addressed the group on certain occasions, but Google was adamant that the presentation, which cited more than 350 meetings with congressional offices and policymakers, included incorrect placeholder figures. The company also said the pamphlet detailed outreach that Next Gen participants did as part of their own work rather than at the urging of Google.

“We do not ask Next Gen participants to take policy positions, nor do we provide them with advocacy materials,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said. “We welcome discussion, debate and disagreement and in no way influence their advocacy efforts.”

The company did not dispute the presentation’s assertion that Next Gen members met with Democratic Reps. Karen Bass, Pramila Jayapal, Ted Lieu and Sheila Jackson Lee with an emphasis on “the work of creatives of color, promoting diverse voices, and helping communities of color navigate the future of work.” According to the presentation, those meetings happened in 2020 ahead of Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s testimony to a House panel investigating Big Tech’s competitive practices. Tweets also show Reps. Jimmy Gomez and Tony Cárdenas addressed the group in 2019.

Castañeda said Google is proud of the program, which facilitates meetings “with experts from civil society and the tech industry to engage on a range of policy topics.”

Spokespeople for Bass, Lieu and Jackson Lee did not respond to questions about the meetings. A spokesperson for Jayapal, Siham Zniber, said her office was “not aware of these meetings/conversations.” Jayapal, the only lawmaker among the four who actually serves on the panel interviewing Pichai, asked pointed questions of him during the marathon session. Lieu and Bass serve on a committee focused on intellectual property.

Building alliances

Meetings of the group, which is free to join, occur about two or four times a year, according to participants. In addition to hot-button tech topics such as Section 230, intellectual property and antitrust, discussions have included mass incarceration, privacy, disinformation, immigration and more.

Before COVID-19, Google footed the bill for travel — often to Washington, D.C., but also to other Google campuses. The group has met with company officials, and Next Gen also appears to have made it possible for participants to attend other conferences, summits and receptions in the capital.

Multiple participants said networking was the greatest benefit of Next Gen, emphasizing that participants talk to each other even outside of Google’s purview. They also lamented how few other spaces they’d found to work with other people of color who are interested in advancing racial justice through tech.

According to materials obtained by TTP, the program has attracted some top-tier names, not just from government and politics but also from academia, civil rights, advocacy, media, philanthropy, think tanks and the arts. Alencia Johnson — a former senior adviser to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign who had previously served in top roles for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s White House bid, Planned Parenthood and President Obama’s reelection — is a participant. So are Alisa Valentin, a special adviser to FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, and April Reign, the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

“It’s a great sharing that I think we need more of — and we need more of creating routes for people of color to have influence over this sort of policymaking,” said participant Chris Lewis, president of tech policy non-profit Public Knowledge, adding that through Next Gen he had been able to speak with entrepreneurs and artists who he “wasn’t naturally coming into contact with.”

Big companies have a long history of courting influential outside voices like Lewis, a former FCC staffer and aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, sometimes through commitments to important causes like diversity, equity and inclusion.

Among many in Washington, Google is seen as having a sophisticated network of ties, in part because the company seems to believe it benefits from supporting academics and activists even when it’s not demanding any chorus of support in return.

“What they’re doing, frankly, is going out and making friends,” said Steve Billet, a former lobbyist at AT&T who is now a professor at Notre Dame. He added he had “no doubt” that the program could help improve Google’s standing among the participants and even potentially mute criticism.

Billet said a policy operation shouldn’t merely revolve around lobbying spending, campaign contributions and meetings with government officials: It should also account for how companies maintain ties with all sorts of groups.

“This is something that smart corporations have always done,” he said. “They at least put themselves in a place where they’re able to discuss and sit down at the table with organizations that are active in their area, [that] may be adversaries on some issues.”

Google, for instance, has been diligent about funding the work of economists and legal academics going back years, even before its latest antitrust woes, according to other reports from TTP. Many of those same scholars insisted that the money didn’t influence their subsequent defenses of the company or tech generally, but in the case of the economists, they were not always forthright about their ties, according to the Wall Street Journal. Google also seemed to focus money and attention on those who might be most ideologically disposed to support the company’s pushback to competition concerns.

In addition, in 2017, Eric Schmidt, who was then Alphabet’s executive chairman, pressured the head of a liberal think tank over one unit’s anti-Big Tech statements, according to a New York Times report. Schmidt had also previously funded and served as chairman of the group, and Google funded it. The offending scholar, competition expert Barry Lynn, blamed those financial relationships for his eventual dismissal.

Overall, the company publicly supports an extensive list of organizations in the policy conversation — from think tanks on the left and right to trade associations and local chambers of commerce — and has a pattern of doing so even when some of them are genuine thorns in the company’s side on certain issues.

Overlaps

Public Knowledge and Lewis in some ways epitomize the relationship between Google and those it keeps in the fold. The group has hammered Google extensively over its competitive practices and been a key force behind the push for antitrust legislation that could fundamentally remake the company’s business. Google and Public Knowledge are fighting each other tooth and nail on the issue. But because the group often aligns with the company on Section 230 and intellectual property issues, it also seems to demonstrate the company’s willingness to make alliances when it can.

“We’re clear, and I’m very clear with our donors, that they have no say in our positions,” Lewis said. He added he’s clear internally and to Google that he wouldn’t even participate in Next Gen if he felt he “did not have an independent voice.”

Google did seem to want to ensure Next Gen participants made use of their voices, especially in opinion pieces. A tweet from a participant, for instance, showed a Next Gen session that taught op-ed writing, and the Next Gen presentation that described lawmaker meetings also touted that participants were producing op-eds, academic papers, blog posts, media appearances and social media posts on tech policy.

Nor is the company shy about making its positions clear during sessions, participants said, including on issues like Section 230 or competition, which represent some of the company’s biggest policy vulnerabilities and in which Google has significant financial stake in the status quo.

Pushing Google

Participants who spoke with Protocol insisted they hadn’t felt pressure to take up Google’s views and said they’d witnessed serious debates and sometimes-pointed criticism of the company itself. Some participants made clear that, far from being a form of corporate indoctrination, Next Gen allows Google to hear directly from outspoken critics, including on topics of participants’ choosing, whether the company’s handling of election integrity or antitrust.

“We’ve been invited to be open and honest and critical as appropriate,” said participant Yosef Getachew, who is the media and democracy program director at Common Cause. He pointed out he’s called out the company publicly on election disinformation. “I’ve directly reached out to Google employees in the past to speak to them directly on the issues that [Common Cause is] working on and push them to do more.”

There’s little doubt that the concerns from communities of color about Google have grown over the years. It’s faced criticism that it’s been slow to combat election-related misinformation, especially on YouTube, and such misinformation has sometimes been aimed at Black and Latinx voters in particular. The mining of personal data at the heart of Google’s digital ads may also allow ads for opportunities to be targeted in discriminatory ways (some of which Google now forbids). And the company’s commitment to diversity and unbiased algorithmic research took a hit in 2020 after it fired prominent AI researcher Timnit Gebru.

Though Next Gen participants are not part of any explicit lobbying operation, they admit Google hasn’t necessarily been swift to address their concerns, and readily concede that Google is a self-interested company whose Washington work can’t possibly be entirely altruistic.

Getachew in particular said the advantage of Next Gen for Google may lie more in getting a word in on policy than in stepping up on diversity and inclusion.

“I can imagine them saying, ‘Well, we’re hosting this convening, this program, that features people of color’ as their part of doing something,” he said. “In my opinion, is that enough? Obviously not. There’s a lot more that Google can do to be equitable both from a policy and practical standpoint.”