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Don't mess with Google's astroturf squad

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The internet ad giant has hired hardcore Washington lobbyists the DCI Group to give it more clout inside the Beltway, blogger Josh Marshall reminds us today.

It's actually really old news, merely resurfacing in the current edition of Beltway insider mag Roll Call.

Back in March, the New York Times' Kate Phillips reported how Google had hired DCI, a lobby network with close ties to senior Bush political advisor Karl Rove. Google explained that DCI Group VP Stuart Roy was in charge of lobbying for Google's Print project. Roy previously served as communication director for Tom DeLay, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Other specific directions for DCI weren't disclosed.

The DCI Group has orchestrated campaigns on behalf of GOP candidates and has close ties to the Republican administration, and corporate clients include tobacco, pharmaceutical and telecoms giants. DCI recently did a spell for the Colonel's regime in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

Nor is the revelation that Google is friendly with neoconservative headbangers news either - it hired Dan Senor last year.

What makes DCI interesting is its speciality is "astroturfing" - or creating phoney grassroots campaigns.

Long before it employed bloggers to do the job for it, Microsoft hired sympathetic members of the public to make its case in online forums, posing as disinterested citizens. Things got much more professional as the antitrust trial unfurled. After hiring DCI in the late 1990s, Microsoft created two new trade groups, the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), and the Americans for Technology Leadership (ALT), and marshaled campaigns such as "Freedom to Innovate" - encouraging Windows users the chance to make spontaneous gestures of support for Chairman Bill.

These weren't always too successful. A campaign in 2001 to petition 17 state's Attorney Generals - who had pooled resources to bring their own antitrust action against Microsoft - resulted in supportive letters being written by dead people.

And the astroturf taint continues today.

Most recently, a spoof video portraying Al Gore as a Penguin was reported to have originated from a computer registered to the DCI Group, although the lobby group said it did not fund or approve the video.

So what does Google want from Washington? Pretty much the same as every other business, one can safely presume: minimal interference in the serious business of accumulating large quantities of money. (Google's $10bn cash hoard is now so large, as a proportion of its assets, that it now officially qualifies as a bank under SEC rules; in July it applied for an exemption from this rule).

And every public corporation needs to expand. Google's growth in the first hand of this decade was powered by contextual advertising - but consultants McKinsey recently revised its estimate for this market downwards, figuring that everyone who wants to place a contextual ad will already have done so. Google is exploring more conventional ad sources, but this puts its up against more established players. So where else can it find some growth opportunities?

More recently Google has thrown its weight behind its campaign for pre-emptive legislation to fiber companies from charging for QoS. Like its Silicon Valley peers, Google is eyeing HD TV delivery, which needs the kind of 100mbit/s pipes Verizon is laying, and low jitter, which is something guarantee if your neighbor is running Bittorrent. The hampering of for-free QoS would give it this kind of service, without the astronomical capital investment of laying this fiber.

(You can read how Google's most distinguished tech lobbyist Vint Cerf approaches these arguments here; and get a spectrum (no pun intended) of reader opinion here, to see how nuanced the issues are.

Under the banner "net neutrality", the campaign has gathered plenty of alarmed people, convinced that "the internet is being privatized". Mirth-makers recently poked fun at Senator Ted Stevens, who chewed his words when trying to explain that the internet is "a series of tubes". (That's not a bad description, actually). It's a mark of lobbying success to present everyone else as the lobby.

Net Neutrality: Save Google. Save this lot.

Is this the work of the dastardly DCI Group?

Perhaps not. With grassroots activism this horrific, no wonder Google needed to call in the professionals. ®

Related links

DCI Group at SourceWatch

DCI Group at LobbyWatch

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