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Google steps into political arena

By Julie Clothier for CNN
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(CNN) -- At just eight years old, Google would still be a decade off voting if it could exercise the democratic right to cast one in an American election.

The California-based Internet search-engine, with its legendary roots in a college dorm room, has always bucked the trend when it comes to having a mainstream corporate image.

But now there are signs the company is growing up -- and beginning to exercise its political muscle.

It might seem like an odd move for a company that has always strived to protect the Internet as a free and open platform for information and communication, but Google says it is moving into the political arena to do precisely that.

Last year Google spent $130.5 million buying 15 small companies. Those assets, and its recent purchase of online video site YouTube for $1.65 billion, mean it is now very much a heavyweight in the tech corporate world.

And the more it diversifies, the more political decisions begin to affect the way it does business.

The company now has eight employees based in Washington, three of whom work on government relations.

It has also created a fundraising arm for donations to candidates in a bid to boost its influence in American politics.

The political action committee (PAC), called Google NetPAC, is registered with the U.S. Federal Commission, joining legions of other American corporations who have PACs as a way of providing financial support for candidates and office holders whose policies they back.

Google NetPAC will be funded through voluntary donations from staff and will consult a wider advisory committee of Google employees on what issues should be considered for lobbying.

One of the Google employees based in Washington is federal relations counsel Jamie Brown, who is also Google NetPAC's treasurer.

She told CNN that PACs are an important way for companies in the U.S. to engage in the political process and said establishing Google NetPAC was a natural progression for the company.

Brown joined Google in June this year from the White House where she worked for the Bush Administration as a special assistant to the President on legislation. Her recruitment adds to the handful of other politically connected names that have joined the company's ranks, both in the U.S. and in the UK.

"The recruitment focus of the company, and rightly so, is trying to find people who have had experience of government relations, folks who understand the process, and who have relationships with people at congress and executive level," Brown said.

High on Google NetPAC's list of concerns is Net neutrality, an issue that sees some telecommunications and cable companies wanting to impose a new system of fees that could create a hierarchy of Web sites.

Google is fiercely opposed to such a move, which would effectively create a tiered Internet, meaning companies that offer high-bandwidth services like video would be charged more to make sure the traffic gets through.

Copyright and fair use of the Internet, as well as privacy issues, also feature on the PAC's agenda, Brown said.

"The purpose of the PAC is to support policy makers who share our goals and our goals are focused on our users," she said.

Image problem?

Neil Taylor, author of the book "Search Me: The Surprising Success of Google," told CNN the establishment of Google NetPAC showed that the company was "beefing itself up" and becoming a real corporate force.

"This is just what big corporations in the U.S. do," he said. "Naturally, I can see where they are coming from, to protect the Internet but it's a long way from the public perception of the Google brand, which is a kind of a homespun, hippyish one."

Taylor said that while he understood why Google was building a presence in Washington, he said it could have a negative impact on the public's perception of the company.

"One of the reasons Google has been so popular is that it has that charm of being non-corporate," Taylor said.

But the company's continued moves to diversify away from its core business as a search engine could also dilute its brand, Taylor said.

"This is one of a number of factors that could stop us loving it as much. For a long time people were uncynical about Google, but treating themselves like other companies means that one of the reasons people have to go back disappears.

"Often I think Google tries to have its cake and eat it. I think they need to watch it. They're on the cusp of a tipping point. Previously, they could do no wrong but the honeymoon with the public is over and they might have to be careful they don't alienate them too much."

Issues, not politics

On the other side of the Atlantic, Google chairman and chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has met with Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, and spoke at opposition Conservative party's conference this year.

But D-J Collins, head of the company's corporate communications in the UK, says he cannot imagine a similar structure to the PAC system for donations being set up outside the U.S.

"The structure in the States is very different," he told CNN.

Collins says the company's participation in any political discussions or lobbying is all part of its desire to "democratize" the Internet and ensure open access.

"We are not interested in politics per se or getting involved in politics per se -- there's no reason for us to do it," he said.

"But obviously in the Internet we have a very fast moving sector so politicians and regulators want to look closely at it so then discussions take place. Not only are we interested in getting involved in these, we think we have a responsibility."

He says it is not so much about Google getting involved in politics, but getting involved in issues.

"Will it change the company? No. It's at the core of the company's desire to share information. That means, where appropriate, having political discussions."

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