Google's goliath

Google’s Richard Whitt was lobbying for the Internet before it was cool, and way before people Googled each other prior to dates and job interviews. 

Whitt represented Internet mavericks like CompuServe and Prodigy in the early 1990s before moving to MCI, where he handled Web and telecom issues. He moved to Google about a year and a half ago, and is helping the Internet giant build a presence in Washington largely from scratch.

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Much of Whitt’s work involves battling what he calls “entrenched interests” — national broadcasters and major telecom companies that have worked their way around Capitol Hill for decades. He describes the Internet companies he has represented as the underdogs in those fights.

“It was this kind of David-versus-Goliath mentality, which I enjoy. They know every politician’s first name and the name of their kids and their dog,” said Whitt.

Whitt didn’t start off with plans to lobby for Internet pioneers. After graduating from law school, Whitt sought out more conventional work in international trade policy.

A year before graduating from Georgetown’s law school, Whitt secured such a job at the law firm of Bishop, Cook, Purcell & Reynolds. But things had changed by the time he arrived at the firm in 1988.

“By the time I showed up a year later, the trade practice had largely dried up and blown away,” said Whitt.

Two practices at the firm were looking for new associates, however: nuclear regulatory and communications. Whitt chose communications.

“It might be a little boring, but people won’t end up dying because of me. So that’s how I fell into communications law,” he said.

K Street is probably in Whitt’s blood. A D.C. native, Whitt was born in George Washington University Hospital, and his father lobbied for Washington Gas for roughly 20 years.

Whitt remembers meeting members of Congress as a child due to his dad’s connections. “I think it had a real influence over me,” he said.

Whitt is a lobbyist who enjoys his work. He gained a reputation among his peers as a policy wonk by writing a white paper on how laws and regulations need to adapt better to the changing communications world thanks to the Internet.

Whitt also likes to put that policy into action. He describes Washington as a world where you have to play offense and defense, and his job is to do a bit of both.

“I like the combination of the substantive element, understanding the issues from every angle, and then advocating for them, which is going into someone’s office for 30 minutes and persuading them that what I am presenting to them is the right way to think about the world,” said Whitt.

He’s won the respect of his Google colleagues, including Internet founding father Vint Cerf, who helped build the World Wide Web at the Department of Defense. In an e-mail, he listed a flurry of compliments in describing Whitt.

“He’s tall, thoughtful, energetic, works harder than anyone else I know, productive, creative, receptive in discussions, strategic and tactical and practical,” said Cerf. “He is one of the best policy thinkers on our team.”

Whitt and Cerf, who is now the chief Internet evangelist at Google, have known each other for some time.

The two previously worked together at MCI , and Whitt was initially attracted to Google when Cerf moved there in 2005. After leaving MCI and running his own consulting practice for a time, Whitt partnered up with Cerf again in 2007 at Google.

By then, Whitt had earned kudos for his dealings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during MCI’s bankruptcy. Several rival phone companies were requesting its FCC licenses be pulled, and Whitt fought to defend them.

“He stuck through and did what they needed him to do. Those were terrible times,” said Cathy Sloan, now vice president of government relations at the Computer & Communications Industry Association. Sloan worked with Whitt at MCI and described him as “an incredibly hard worker” and “very, very smart.”

Many of those battles continue today. For CompuServe and Prodigy, Whitt helped fend off phone companies trying to charge access rates to customers for online use. Now, with Google, the lobbyist is working hard so that Internet companies do not face fees for Web traffic from telecom providers, in what has become known as “network neutrality.”

But Google’s biggest challenge is to educate those in power about the growing influence of the Internet, according to Whitt.

“There are still a lot of people who think the world is divided up between cable companies, phone companies, satellite companies,” said Whitt. “Really, those distinctions have faded away.”