With Congress and privacy watchdogs breathing down its neck, Google is stepping up its lobbying presence inside the Beltway – spending more than Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft combined in the first three months of the year.
Google spent $5.03 million on lobbying from January through March of this year, a record for the Internet giant, and a 240 percent increase from the $1.48 million it spent on lobbyists in the same quarter a year ago, according to disclosures filed Friday with the clerk of the House.
By comparison, Apple spent $500,000; Facebook spent $650,000 Amazon spent $870,000; and Microsoft spent $1.79 million. Google even outspent Verizon Wireless, a notoriously big spender, which spent $4.51 million.
The increase is a sign that the search engine can no longer afford to operate in a Silicon Valley vacuum. For years, Google had a reputation for indifference inside the Beltway. It took Google until May 2005 to set up a presence in Washington and even then, its headquarters consisted of a one-man lobbying shop in suburban Maryland.
By 2012, however, Google had become the subject of almost constant scrutiny from regulators, competitors and privacy advocates. Most recently, federal regulators hit Google with a $25,000 fine for impeding an investigation into its data collection practices.
This year, the company was accused of bypassing Apple's privacy settings in Safari in order to track users' Web browsing activity without their knowledge. In the European Union, Google faces an antitrust investigation and accusations that it violated personal privacy protections.
''As we have seen over the last year, there are a number of technology issues being debated in Washington,'' said Samantha Smith, a Google spokeswoman, in an e-mail message. ''These are important issues and it should be expected that we would want to help people understand our business.''
Privacy advocates see it another way. ''Google claims its motto is 'Don't be evil,' but the amount of cash they are throwing around demonstrates an astounding cynicism,'' said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's privacy project director.
Others, though, frame Google's lobbying efforts as an inevitable part of growing up. ''When they first came to Washington, they were an itty-bitty search engine,'' said Art Brodsky, who works for Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. ''The more Google expands, the more it gets into other people's
''They've always had a huge target on their back with telecom issues,'' he continued, ''but now they're on everyone's radar. The sad reality is that if you don't defend yourself here, you're toast.''
The Internet giant is now filling its Washington ranks with experienced political operatives. Last year, Google hired 12 outside lobbying firms, including well-known firms like Akin Gump and the Gephardt Group, led by Richard A. Gephardt, the Democrat from Missouri who is a former House majority leader.
Google also has 11 lobbyists on staff. It spent almost as much on lobbying last quarter as it did for all of 2010, when it spent $5.2 million.
In February, Google hired Susan Molinari, a former Republican representative from New York, to run its Washington operation. Ms. Molinari, who has been a lobbyist since 1999, succeeded Alan Davidson, a former computer scientist who had run Google's lobbying shop since 2005. Experts say Google's decision to hire a Republican, in a Republican-controlled House, was calculated.
''Google has always been a quote 'Democratic company,' '' Mr. Brodsky said. ''By hiring a Republican insider, Google is trying to be more bipartisan, to appeal to both sides of the aisle.''