GOP could make trouble for Google

The company whose chief executive campaigned for President Obama stands to become a target of investigations by multiple committees. 

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has promised to be an aggressive watchdog as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has led congressional Republicans in questioning whether Google has inappropriate ties to the Obama administration. 

Issa wrote to the White House in April to ask whether a technology official and former Google employee had unethical contact with the company. 

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“The American people have a right to expect that White House employees are working to advance the public interest and not the interests of the lobby shops who formerly employed them,” Issa said in the letter.

His spokesman, Seamus Kraft, said the committee “will continue to be 

concerned about consumer privacy issues and the Presidential Records Act.” Both issues directly affect Google.

Watchdogs have also questioned Google’s ties to Democrats. The pro-free-market group National Legal and Policy Center, for example, has labeled the company the Halliburton of the Obama years. Halliburton was closely associated with the administration of President George W. Bush.

Google downplayed the impact of the new GOP-led House by saying it has friends in both parties. 

“Technology isn’t a partisan issue,” said spokeswoman Mistique Cano. “We’ve believed for a long time that it’s important to build relationships on both sides of the aisle, and that’s something we’ve done for years.” 

Though Republican gains in the midterm elections have many tech companies rejoicing over a majority that is less inclined toward regulation, Google’s major public policy issue — privacy — appears likely to stay on the table.

New online privacy rules that could squeeze Google’s business model are one of the few legislative issues on which Democrats and Republicans say they can work together. 

“It will be a challenge for any company whose main business operates on data,” one tech industry lobbyist said. 

The core of Google’s business is online advertising, which could be limited by laws that dictate how marketers can use people’s personal information. 

“Google isn’t helping itself with its Wi-Spy breach,” said another tech industry lobbyist, referring to a recent data breach by Google that raised alarms on Capitol Hill. He said such mistakes might make privacy regulations more likely as members worry about how companies are treating people’s digital identities.

Though privacy issues are nothing new, they could receive extra attention depending on who becomes chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to a telecom industry lobbyist. 

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), a candidate for the position, is co-chairman of the congressional privacy caucus and has already said he is interested in investigating Google for a past privacy breach. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), another candidate for the post, has been tinkering with online privacy legislation for years and has promised to push it next Congress.

Barton has said Google’s data breach warrants congressional attention.

“Google said [the breach was] inadvertent, but [private information] wasn’t just kind of accidentally gathered, and so I do think that’s something to look at,” Barton said this month. 

Analysts say that within the full context of the telecom and Internet industry, Google may be weaker under a Republican majority.

“We believe Republican midterm election gains would generally strengthen the hand of [some phone companies], cable and broadcasters … over their telecom, media and tech rivals,” a report from telecom analysts at Stifel Nicolaus said this month, listing Google as one of these “rivals.”

Meanwhile, Google’s signature issue, net neutrality, seems all but dead on Capitol Hill, as House Republicans unanimously oppose the policy. 

The company has recently backed away from the net-neutrality fight, and seems unlikely to push it in the next Congress, according to observers.

But it will be hard to escape its legacy as the company that wanted to “regulate the Internet,” according to a telecom industry lobbyist. The net-neutrality campaign alienated many Republicans in Congress, he said. 

“That’s a lot to get past in Washington, D.C.,” he said. 

There are some signs Google might be making inroads with the GOP.

Eric Schmidt, the company’s chief executive, met with GOP Majority Transition Chairman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) in his office on Capitol Hill shortly after the elections, providing tips on how to improve House operation. Schmidt is also reputed to have a strong relationship with such influential Republicans as Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah). 

The company has a solid bench of Republican strategists, including policy counsel Pablo Chavez, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); communications executive Jill Hazelbaker, a top aide on McCain’s presidential campaign; and policy manager Seth Webb, a former aide to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). 

Google has also bolstered its contributions to Republican candidates. Between July and October, 55 percent of Google NetPAC’s contributions went to Republicans ($57,500). Democrats received 45 percent of contributions ($47,500), according to an analysis by the organization Consumer Watchdog.

Those figures are a change from the last filing, in which Democrats received 58 percent of the contributions and Republicans received 42 percent ($14,000).

One telecom lobbyist said the general bent of House Republicans away from regulation means the environment will benefit all companies — even Google.

“As this goes forward, we’ll see whether GOP candidates who campaigned on being pro-business will keep their promises by welcoming Google’s economic contributions,” he said.