Google's Lobby Offensive Internet Giant Builds Web of Influence in Berlin

By and Stefan Niggemeier

Part 2: Shaping the Public Discourse

Google also relies on the services of traditional lobbyists. In Berlin, for example, the company has engaged Axel Wallrabenstein, a former national chairman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) youth group, and now the head of German operations for MSLGroup, a PR firm.

According to members of the CDU group in the German parliament, the Bundestag, Wallrabenstein constantly sends out emails containing information about ancillary copyright, invites them to discussion groups and offers Google's new Berlin offices as a venue for conferences. Conveniently, Wallrabenstein is also the chairman of the advisory council of "CNetz," a CDU-affiliated group devoted to Internet policy issues. In response to the question of why he is involved with CNetz, Wallrabenstein, writing on the website, states: "because I think the name sounds so cool." He doesn't mention his work for Google, however. Wallrabenstein explains that everyone at CNetz is aware of the fact that Google has engaged his firm. He also notes that his work for Google has been acknowledged publicly with awards.

Google says that Wallrabenstein mediates discussions with politicians. The company seeks to portray itself as performing an educational function, rather than as a lobbyist for its own interests. "We want to take responsibility and contribute our expertise," says Kroeber-Riel, the head of the Berlin office. "In conversations with politicians, it is often necessary to begin by talking about the basics of the Internet and how it works."

Excessive Influence

Many people would agree that this kind of work is necessary. But what does it mean when a company that has an excessively large amount of influence on everyday activities on the Internet is also involved in shaping the public discourse? And what happens when a company which has a quasi-monopoly as a search engine also threatens to gain a quasi-monopoly when it comes to explaining the Internet?

The Berlin-based Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society was founded last year. The organizations involved in the institute include Humboldt University, the Berlin University of the Arts, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Hans Bredow Institute. Google is contributing €4.5 million ($5.8 million) to the development of the institute in the first few years. The four directors have such illustrious reputations that there should be no doubt as to their integrity. Some of their writings are also critical of Google.

Nevertheless, many observers have qualms about the company's funding of the effort. "Of course, they all claim that they are independent and would not allow their work to be rubber-stamped by Google," writes blogger Philip Banse. But the problem, he adds, is that mental self-censorship begins long before anyone needs to prohibit anything. Banse is especially critical of the fact that the government was incapable of funding a similar institute itself.

A new interest group with the working title "German Internet Governance Coalition" is currently taking shape in Berlin. On the Wednesday before last, lobbyists, activists and academics met in the offices of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (New Responsibility Foundation), a Berlin-based think tank. Google's Senges also attended the meeting. The makeup of the group must have been to his liking.

A wide range of organizations is expected to participate in the interest group, including the German Internet Association and the Ver.di public sector union. The loose coalition hopes to gain the support of German Economics Minister Philipp Rösler. The coalition is urging him to advocate a free and borderless Internet at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in December.

American-Style PR

An American understanding of public relations is behind Google's activities. The company combines involvement in social issues with corporate interests, and in doing so it grants its partners considerable freedom. Google embraces the community to ensure its participation in important discussions -- or, better yet, to launch those discussions itself. However, because of its omnipresence and close ties to many Internet activists and academics, Google's own role is subject to little critical scrutiny.

The company sets noble goals for itself: Internet freedom, freedom of opinion and the struggle against censorship. But its overriding goal is to do its utmost to prevent political interference in its business affairs.

In mid-September, the community of Internet activists attended a two-day conference at the German Foreign Ministry to discuss the topic of "Internet and Human Rights." The Google-funded Humboldt Institute was one of the four organizers, with the company providing €30,000 in sponsorship for the conference. Google already has a special connection to the Foreign Ministry. One of the ministry officials who co-organized the conference spent five months working as a lobbyist for the company until last year. The Foreign Ministry and Google stress that the lobbyist was not instrumental in establishing the contact for the conference.

Much of the discussion at the conference revolved around the positive role social networks played in the Arab revolutions. The meeting coincided with the global wave of outrage at the Muhammad video, taking place shortly after the US ambassador and three other people died in Libya when an angry mob attacked the US Consulate in Benghazi.

Diplomatic Mood

But anyone hoping to experience a tense discussion was disappointed. The mood was diplomatic. That was also the case with the appearance of the most prominent guest, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

Although Westerwelle mentioned the video in his speech and characterized the Internet as both a "blessing and a curse," in his most important point he coincided with the interests of the sponsor of the conference. Self-regulation and the multi-stakeholder approach should be of paramount importance on the Internet, the foreign minister said.

A Google executive couldn't have said it better.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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