No one could accuse Google of ignoring climate change. For a time, the company pursued homegrown cleantech inventions, and lately has shifted to pouring investments into large renewable projects. Google’s top executives have even lobbied directly for climate and clean energy policies in the halls of Washington.
This track record is exactly what climate advocates are holding against Google now that the search giant is reportedly working with ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), a powerful free-market lobbying group that has devoted itself recently to undermining state renewable energy and climate laws.
To date, at least 50 major corporations have cut ties with ALEC, including Amazon, Kraft, Pepsi and most recently, Sallie Mae, due to a number of the group’s distasteful lobbying efforts on behalf of controversial initiatives like voter ID laws and Stand Your Ground. But at ALEC's annual conference in Chicago this August, it became clear that Google, Yelp, Facebook, and Microsoft are all serving on a technology task force for the libertarian group, according to news reports. A Yelp executive gave a presentation focused on ways to limit lawsuits that stifle free speech, an issue not related to climate or energy policy.
Brad Johnson, campaign manager with the climate group Forecast the Facts, says that just because Google isn’t working on spiking renewable energy laws with ALEC doesn't mean it's acceptable that it lends its name or money to the organization. He also cites a fundraiser Google hosted in July for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, an unapologetic and longtime climate denier. (Google is opening a data center in the state, but it’s unclear—at least to Johnson—why the company felt the need to get cozy with Inhofe.)
The incident echoes other recent flare-ups tech companies have had as they get more deeply involved in political lobbying outside their usual spheres. Earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came under fire when Fwd.us, the group he formed so the tech community could push to pass immigration reform, spent millions on ads for anti-environmental causes to win the backing of influential politicians in the immigration debate.
"There’s a real clumsiness that Silicon Valley has in interacting with our political process," says Johnson. "Some of it, I think, is naivete. And some of it is actually driven by cynicism—this idea that the only way you can engage in our political system is by being as corrupt as everyone else. And you know, this is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy." He notes that last year Google hired Susan Molinari, a former Republican lawmaker to lead its D.C. office.
Google has not yet responded to a request for comment about the nature of its ties to ALEC. The company does not mention its membership on its own public policy transparency page.
Forecast the Facts is asking Google to distance itself from ALEC and stay consistent with its strong record on climate. It has been rallying its members to post negative reviews on Google Plus pages for both the company and for ALEC, and it has also talked to Google employees about the problem at the company’s shuttle bus stops in the San Francisco area. (Other groups have been targeting Yelp in similar ways).