Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla. is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 31, 2013. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
A great howl of outrage emanated from the environmental community yesterday after it learned that Google Inc—of the well-known motto “don’t be evil”—hosted a fundraiser for James Inhofe, a far-right senator from Oklahoma notable for his vociferous denial of climate change and refusal to hire gay staffers.
Google professes to be making “a better web. Better for the environment.” They have made big investments in renewable energy, and lobbied the government to do the same. In 2011, they armed climate researchers with new media strategies in order to better take on the skeptics—people like Inhofe.
Just one day before Thursday’s luncheon, Inhofe came to the Senate floor and railed against President Obama’s climate plan, warning that the “goal is not to protect the American people, it is to control them.”
Google’s explanation? “We regularly host fundraisers for candidates, on both sides of the aisle, but that doesn’t mean we endorse all of their positions,” a spokesperson wrote. “We share an interest with Senator Inhofe in the employees and data center we have in Oklahoma.”
What exactly does Google need Inhofe to do for its Oklahoma operation, which the company is expanding? Inhofe isn’t explicitly relevant to Google’s other interests. He doesn’t lead any pertinent committees, he opposed net-neutrality rules and he’s against comprehensive immigration reform, which Google is pressing for in order to get an expansion of visas for high-skilled employees. Perhaps a general interest in corporate welfare brings the two together, but Inhofe is pretty small fry in the pool of business-friendly Republicans.
Hypocritical as it seems, Google’s Inhofe lunch is yet another indicator of the growing entanglement of Silicon Valley with Washington’s unsavory underbelly. Contradictions between the tech industry’s left-leaning, “progressive” brand and its political activities are perhaps best expressed by Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us (supported by Google CEO Eric Schmidt) doing anything it can to influence immigration reform in the industry’s favor, including running ads in support of the Keystone XL pipeline. (Rebecca Solnit and George Packer have described the effects, from local to global, of the tech industry’s ambitions at some length.)
In Washington, Google leads the computer and Internet pack. The company was the biggest single donor at the annual fundraising dinner for the Competitive Enterprise Institute in June, kicking $50,000 to the libertarian group that shares privacy interests with Google, but also has invested massive resources to downplay the seriousness of climate change.
“They’re a force to be reckoned with in terms of lobbying influence,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2012, Google spent $18.2 million on lobbying to become the eighth-biggest spender, ahead of defense giant Lockheed Martin. Last year the company hired Susan Molinari, a Republican lobbyist, to head a Washington office that employs more than 100 people.
What’s more, as Krumholz noted, “they are able, pretty handily, to match their lobbying influence with campaign contributions.” Google’s cash was nearly evenly split across the aisle last year, with much of the money for Republicans directed to people likely to carry weight in immigration reform.
“There is lots of rationalizing and resignation to the belief that if you need to get something done in terms of policy and politics you need to play the game,” said Krumholz. “Could Google be making choices to say no, we’re not going to play that game, and we’re not going to let legislative strategy undermine our other values? That’s a strategic choice they’d have to make.”
For Google and other tech giants, the gap between values and political value seems to be widening. While over 11,000 people organized by Forecast the Facts signed a petition against the Inhofe fundraiser, the luncheon went forward. That’s likely a sign of things to come.
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