Changing the Culture

The key to deep, lasting social change is changing the intellectual and social culture that serves as a platform for the politics, the norms, the ingrained assumptions and expectations, and certainly the day-to-day exchange of interests and playing of tactics.

In the broader field of U.S. society, conservatives did this in the 1980s with a linked limited government/family values discourse, and liberals did it a generation earlier through the civil rights and anti-war movements.  In the legal field, which both follows and leads broader societal changes, “conservative” legal thinkers (the labels are harder here) changed the culture in the 1990s with a linked strict-constructionist and law-and-economics discourse, but only after “liberals” changed it a generation earlier through critical legal theory and the clinical legal education discourses.

Sometimes these culture-changing developments are easy to follow: key cases, articles, or political or social events.  But far more often they occur under the radar, subtly but (I believe) intentionally masked, and very often using controversial methods and tactics, such as, for those with money and power, lobbying and interest-sharing deals, or for those that don’t, street protests and civil disobedience.  These are only examples: part of what makes the culture-change analysis so fascinating is the amazing variety of methods and tactics that interest and ideology groups employ.

A great illustrative article on how this has been done by Google was published recently in the Washington Post.  Google is a great subject to really explore the difficulties here because of its unique identity — I would submit that the vitality of Google’s halcyon-days promise to not be “evil” is the defining question of the technological/political/legal moment we are witnessing.  What is going on here is a damning indictment, from one perspective, and a celebration of social dynamics, from another perspective.  Food for so much thought. 

Google, once disdainful of lobbying, now a master of Washington influence, Wash Post, Apr. 13, 2014.  Describes how Google has developed a massive lobbying shop, but in particular focuses on how Google orchestrated a series of apparently independent academic symposium on the state of competition in the online search field at the same time as it was facing an FTC investigation on the same and used the symposium to mount a massive de facto lobbying campaign on key congressional and FTC contacts.

The behind-the-scenes machinations demonstrate how Google — once a lobbying weakling — has come to master a new method of operating in modern-day Washington, where spending on traditional lobbying is rivaled by other, less visible forms of influence.

That system includes financing sympathetic research at universities and think tanks, investing in nonprofit advocacy groups across the political spectrum and funding pro-business coalitions cast as public-interest projects.

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The company has also pioneered new and unexpected ways to influence decision-makers, harnessing its vast reach. It has befriended key lawmakers in both parties by offering free training sessions to Capitol Hill staffers and campaign operatives on how to use Google products that can help target voters.

Through a program for charities, Google donates in-kind advertising, customized YouTube channels and Web site analytics to think tanks that are allied with the company’s policy goals.

Google “fellows” — young lawyers, writers and thinkers paid by the company — populate elite think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the New America Foundation.

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An early sign of Google’s new Washington attitude came in September 2011, when executives paid a visit to the Heritage Foundation, the stalwart conservative think tank that has long served as an intellectual hub on the right, to attend a weekly lunch for conservative bloggers. . . .

A few weeks after the blogger session, Heritage researcher James L. Gattuso penned a critique of the antitrust investigation into Google, praising the company as “an American success story.”

That winter, Heritage joined the chorus of groups weighing in against the anti-piracy legislation.

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[re GMU] For the past several years, the free-market-oriented law center has received an annual donation from the company, a grant that totaled $350,000 last year, according to the school. . .

Even as Google executives peppered the GMU staff with suggestions of speakers and guests to invite to the event, the company asked the school not to broadcast its involvement.

“It may seem like Google is overwhelming the conference,” [Google’s lawyer] fretted in an e-mail to the center’s administrative coordinator, Jeffrey Smith, after reviewing the confirmed list of attendees a few weeks before the event. She asked Smith to mention “only a few Googlers.”

Smith was reassuring. “We will certainly limit who we announce publicly from Google,” he replied.

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Cato was not always in sync with Google’s policy agenda. In previous years, the think tank’s bloggers and scholars had been sharply critical of the company’s support for government rules limiting the ways providers such as Comcast and Verizon could charge for Internet services.

But, like many institutions in Washington, Cato has since found common ground with Google.

And the think tank has benefited from the company’s investments, receiving $480,000 worth of in-kind “ad words” from Google last year, according to people familiar with the donation.