June 14, 2019
By Paresh Dave
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google is trying to plug a surge of public scrutiny around the world by overhauling how its policy office operates, with increased emphasis on having policy staffers and top company executives alike building relationships with governments, people familiar with the matter said this week.
Government officials in the United States, India, Ireland, Singapore, Australia and at least several other countries have threatened regulation or launched probes concerning Google’s user privacy practices, its policing of inappropriate videos and apps, and the potential abuse of its dominance in internet search and advertising.
The negative attention on Google’s power and its data collection practices could hurt its public image and force costly business changes.
Google’s global policy office had gone years without a major strategy shift until Karan Bhatia was hired last June from General Electric Co, where he also led government affairs and policy.
In his first year, he has added “government affairs” to his unit’s name before “public policy” to stress relationship building over whitepaper writing, overhauled reporting lines and begun to cut a roster of contract lobbyists, eight of the people said.
The moves aim to get Google’s separate units including cloud computing, consumer hardware and YouTube – along with each unit’s senior leaders – to take a bigger role in lobbying on issues affecting them and set the company up to uniformly challenge similar regulatory threats in different parts of the world, sources said.
In Washington, lawmakers long have raised concerns about Google’s executives not engaging enough to address their concerns or personally weigh in on policy discussions, according to lobbyists. The issue attracted attention last September when senators pointedly left an empty seat for Google at an intelligence committee hearing on election integrity after the company declined to send a top executive to testify.
The empty-seat blunder, as Google’s Washington leadership eventually recognized it, and a string of policy defeats on issues such as copyright in Europe and censorship in Asia have given Bhatia a wide opening to bring changes, sources said. Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, has traveled to Washington each quarter since Bhatia joined, including for a meeting with President Donald Trump.
The company declined to comment for this story. Spokespeople have declined multiple requests to interview Bhatia since his hiring.
Bhatia centralized policy crafting through a set of “centers of excellence,” each focused on a separate issue such as data privacy rules, competition law or economic policy, sources said.
Google’s policy team has been organized regionally, a vestige of the company gradual’s expansion into new countries. But different regions with limited coordination each had their own projects to create proposals for addressing the same concern.
Under Bhatia, those regional teams now focus more on interacting with lawmakers and regulators out of the office, sources said.
The four regional heads reporting to Bhatia include Ted Osius for Asia Pacific and Doron Avni for Latin America, Africa, Middle East and Greater Russia. Leaders for U.S.-Canada and Europe have not been named.
Also reporting to Bhatia are Leslie Miller, who supervises the centers of excellence, and Wilson White, who oversees teams focused on relaying insights to YouTube, Google Cloud and other business units.
MORE INTERNAL INVOLVEMENT
Getting Pichai and his product executives to be more involved has been a challenge over the years because Pichai has been reluctant to make engaging with government policymakers a core duty, people said, in contrast to CEOs such as Apple Inc’s Tim Cook and General Motors Co’s Mary Barra.
Bhatia may end up drawing product leaders into government affairs by having individual Google units hire lobbying firms directly in the future, sources said.
He has already begun to reset lobbying contracts. Google recently fired one long-time lobbying firm in Europe and has threatened to drop as many as 20 of its U.S. lobbying firms from the 26 it worked with last year, sources said.
One U.S. firm said it was told its last day would be June 30, while three others said they were awaiting word from Google. All declined to be named because they were not authorized to comment on their client.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed sources, that Google has fired six U.S. lobbying firms, which together accounted for about half of its $20 million domestic lobbying budget.
(Reporting by Paresh Dave in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Brad Haynes in Sao Paulo and Foo Yun Chee in Brussels; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Leslie Adler)