Google's Role Grows in DC With Obama Victory

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Oh, to be Google right now. Its CEO, Eric Schmidt, is advising President-elect Barack Obama on economic policy. And who can forget the debate in Congress over Net neutrality and Google's battle with the telecoms?

Certainly not Schmidt, whose pro-neutrality stance had a Verizon executive calling for an end to "Google's 'Free Lunch.' "

Schmidt may soon be eating his lunches for free at the White House -- and with a new president who also supports Net neutrality. How delicious is that?

To help celebrate what could finally be victory over the telecoms on Net neutrality -- look for a big push next year -- Google this week bumped up its bandwidth use by unveiling video chat for Gmail.

It gets even better for Google. Obama wants to appoint a chief technology officer with the ability to influence, if not control, the IT direction of the vast federal workforce and all it touches.

What if that new CTO insists on buying open source software as a way to save money? It's a prospect raised by Robert Atkinson, president of The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan think tank. Obama's call for an open and transparent government, "could mean a mandate for open source or a mandate for open standards," Atkinson said.

Something like that could benefit Google, both directly and indirectly. Open standards could lead to a shift to open-source products such as OpenOffice and Linux desktops. And it could push government agencies to try software-as-a-service -- including Google's online offerings, its Gmail and Docs.

The presumption among tech policy groups is that an Obama administration will be more than just tech-aware; it'll be tech-aggressive and more likely to push the federal government in new directions.

The Bush administration was "so tech unoriented," said Ed Black, who heads the Computer & Communications Industry Association. "You are going to see a whole lot more people in important positions in this administration who do 'get' tech."

John Palafoutas, the senior president for domestic policy and congressional affairs at AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association) agreed with that view. The people coming into the Obama administration "know how to use technology and they're not afraid of technology," Palafoutas said.

There's good and bad in having a tech-focused administration in the White House.

On the plus side, the tech industry will likely rally around efforts to boost research funding, as well as initiatives for improving broadband and Internet access. But an Obama administration might also begin new battles in Congress, namely on privacy and security regulations. And those kinds of fights could pose huge risks for Google.

Google is already pushing back on the threat of regulation, especially from European lawmakers. In September, Google said it would anonymize IP addresses on its server logs after nine months. In doing so, the company said it is "significantly shortening our previous 18-month retention policy to address regulatory concerns and to take another step to improve privacy for our users."

But Google's effort to keep regulators at bay runs up against eight years of privacy self-regulation that has delivered a string of data breaches and identity thefts.

"We have expressed real frustration about self-regulation and in our view that policy approach did not work," said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center. He believes Congress and the Obama administration will revisit a broad range of privacy issues, including consumer privacy.

In sum, Google could easily suffer big wins and big setbacks in Washington: It could win on Net neutrality but lose on privacy.

For now, the Google-Obama relationship is seen as an advantage for both. By working with Google, Obama is "aligned with a leading edge, sexy technology company that is also seen as good" among the netroots or politically active community, said Atkinson.

The connection between Obama and Google was not lost on voters. In a brand study conducted early in October by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, 1,002 people in the U.S. were asked to compare Obama -- and his Republican rival Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) -- to a number of well-known brands. Obama was compared to Google; McCain to AOL.

This story, "Google's Role Grows in DC With Obama Victory" was originally published by Computerworld.

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