Google Upsets Environmentalists, Plays D.C. Money Game

Google isn't the quirky, idealistic upstart it once was, and hasn't been for a while now

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Tom Williams / Roll Call / Getty Images

Republican Senator Jim Inhofe speaks at a news conference outside of the Capitol on June 20, 2013.

A handful of environmental activists gathered Thursday outside a glitzy fundraiser in Washington to protest corporate hypocrisy. Like most of the demonstrations that dot downtown D.C. each day, it was a ragtag scene: a few paid staffers, a couple of passionate locals, and a clutch of students toting signs and chanting slogans outside a glassy office tower. The company being targeted, however, was an unlikely villain for environmental protests. “Google is supposed to be green,” says Matt Owens, a climate activist from suburban Washington. “What they’re doing is completely unacceptable.”

What Google was doing was hosting a fundraiser for Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who is up for re-election next year. Inhofe is one of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans. He believes, for instance, that the birthers “have a point,” and that Barack Obama is trying “to destroy every institution that makes America great.” Inhofe is perhaps best known, however, for his position on climate change. He is a staunch opponent of EPA regulations. He authored a treatise called “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.” He thinks the Bible disproves global warming, and he once denounced the “arrogance” of scientists who suggest that “we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate.”

Inhofe’s skepticism toward the settled science of global warming makes him a strange ally for Google, which has nurtured a reputation as a socially conscious firm that is committed to the environment. Its website boasts of more than $1 billion donated to renewable-energy projects. “You can lie about the effects of climate change,” Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman and informal adviser to Barack Obama, said last month, “but eventually you’ll be seen as a liar.”

Which isn’t to say Google won’t still hobnob with you, or pay for the privilege. The search firm isn’t the quirky, idealistic upstart it once was, and hasn’t been for a while now. It is a corporate behemoth with the third largest market cap in the U.S. and a lobbying footprint that reaches deep into the Washington mud. Last year Google forked over more than $18 million in lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — more than any company except General Electric. As it learns to navigate the capital’s insular folkways and hidebound bureaucracies, it has lavished cash on politicians from both parties.

What prompted Google to host a shindig where attendees shelled out up to $2,500 for lunch with Inhofe? A data center the company operates at an industrial park in Pryor, Okla. “Google runs a significant operation … that provides around 100 jobs,” Rusty Appleton, Inhofe’s campaign manager, tells TIME. “The Senator had an opportunity to tour the facilities in May of last year, and is committed to ensuring that Oklahoma remains a great place to do business.”

A Google spokesperson tells TIME the company regularly hosts fundraisers for candidates of all stripes, even when Google disagrees with some of their policies — as it does with Inhofe on climate change. “While we don’t agree with Senator Inhofe on several issues, we agree with him on many, such as open and free competition for defense contracts, for enterprise services,” says the spokesperson. “We engage on Google issues because we are a home-state employer.”

This explanation didn’t wash with the activists outside Google’s D.C. headquarters near K Street. “What’s their slogan? ‘Don’t be evil’?” asked Eric Anderson, a software engineer from Silver Spring, Md. “If they’re doing things to further damage our planet, well, that’s pretty evil in my book.”

But if environmentalists were outraged, they should not have been surprised. As Google and its Silicon Valley competitors plunge further into Washington politics, they have found allies on all bands of the political spectrum. As the Washington Post reported, last month Google sent $50,000 to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank linked to the Koch brothers. (Facebook doled out $25,000.) Google was among the tech firms that lobbied to loosen hiring restrictions on high-skilled workers as part of the Senate’s immigration bill, a provision opposed by organized labor. It is hardly the only tech firm with liberal roots to court controversy. Fwd.US, the immigration-reform advocacy group partly funded by Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, incensed progressives by running ads that praise lawmakers for backing the Keystone pipeline and drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge.

“Google has cultivated a reputation for working to support scientific inquiry and pursuing environmental sustainability,” wrote Brad Johnson, campaign manager of Forecast the Facts, the group that staged Thursday’s protest. “This reputation will be rendered meaningless if the fundraiser goes forward.” But it did, of course. A pair of polite young Googlers in business casual went downstairs to collect a petition. The smattering of protesters chanted “Google, don’t fund evil,” as a pair of black-clad security guards blocked the doors, directing employees carrying takeout lunches to use the side door.

Upstairs, the business of Washington went on.