Google's business model has faced mounting threats from both ends of the political spectrum in recent years, including calls for tough antitrust scrutiny, stricter liability for content, and the threat of a breakup. Through it all, the internet giant has been able to count on the support of one unlikely ally: the Koch network.
With little notice, billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and the conservative dark-money juggernaut they built have become some of Google’s strongest backers, coming to the company’s aid as it navigates the storm engulfing Big Tech in Washington and beyond. And Google, long a beacon of progressivism in corporate America, has embraced the Kochs and lent its support to many of their conservative causes.
With little notice, billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and the conservative dark-money juggernaut they built have become some of Google’s strongest backers
The remarkable confluence of interests between two entities that long inhabited opposite ends of the political spectrum has funnelled millions to a roster of conservative and libertarian policy groups, all working to protect Google and its profits from regulation. This little-noticed alliance of convenience has also seen Google lend its support to a long list of conservative groups that take positions antithetical to the vast majority of its outspoken, and mostly liberal, workforce, from climate change denial to opposition to gun control.
In all, Google has given money to at least 32 nonprofit policy groups and universities that are also funded by the Koch network since 2010, including at least 22 conservative and libertarian organizations, the GTP analysis shows. They include the American Conservative Union, American Legislative Exchange Council, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and the Mercatus Center.
The emergence of these strange bedfellows has drawn occasional, puzzled notice from watchdogs and Beltway reporters.1 But a Google Transparency Project review of tax records, financial disclosures, nonprofit reports and other public records shows that the relationship between Google and the Kochs stretches back further and is more extensive than has been previously known. It is also more important to Google than has been appreciated, giving the company a deep-pocketed conservative ally as it faces off against policymakers and regulators.
In August 2017, for example, top executives at the Charles Koch Institute and Engine, a Google-funded surrogate, wrote an opinion piece for The Hill arguing that legal immunity for internet platforms was essential to tech innovation.2 The issue is one of Google’s top policy priorities, with multibillion dollar implications for its bottom line.
The relationship between Google and the Kochs stretches back further and is more extensive than has been previously known
In May 2018, groups funded by the Charles Koch Foundation and Google joined forces to host a daylong Washington conference about “the vexing challenges that Internet platforms face in moderating content.”3 Speakers offered a sympathetic view of the predicaments the internet giants confront as they come under criticism for allowing hateful speech or illegal activities on their platforms.4
And in September 2019, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch family’s political advocacy arm, released ads urging state attorneys general “not to politicize” antitrust probes of tech companies.5 “The Charles Koch Institute and Foundation are a thoughtful partner and we are happy to work with them,” Engine’s Evan Engstrom said, as the groups joined forces to lobby on data privacy legislation.6
Engstrom, who has close ties to Google, is just one of a cast of characters who helped forge this unlikely alliance. A key, and little-noticed role also appears to have been played by a British public relations executive, whose surprising personal ties helped bridge the Google-Koch divide.
Rachel Whetstone was promoted to a top public policy job at Google in 2011, following stints working in the Conservative Party in the U.K.7 Three decades earlier, her grandfather, Antony Fisher—described as “the Johnny Appleseed of the free-market movement”—founded what would become Atlas Network. The nonprofit, designed to encourage the proliferation of free-market think tanks, now supports nearly 500 groups around the world.8
Whetstone’s personal and professional connections seem to have come together as Google sought to bolster its ties with conservatives in the wake of a disastrous 2011 Senate appearance by Google’s former chief executive Eric Schmidt, who faced hostile grilling from Republicans. In 2012, the company made the first of what would become annual donations to Atlas Network, where Whetstone’s mother serves as chairman of the board.9
This early move meant Google was suddenly funding many conservative and libertarian groups that were part of the Koch network, and it marked a remarkable shift from what had been Google’s reliable support of progressive groups in the 2000s. At about the same time that Google entered the Atlas universe, the Kochs started to boost their involvement in the tech sector, both as investors and as activists. That task has largely fallen to Chase Koch, the 42-year-old son of Charles, who many Koch-watchers believe is being groomed to lead one of the world’s most powerful private companies.
Chase Koch may have initially seemed like an unlikely candidate to take over the family empire. Speaking to a group of Wichita Rotarians in 2019, the Koch scion admitted to several years of “screwing around in Austin,” playing Led Zeppelin covers with his band and trying to find his way into Austin’s tech startup scene before eventually joining Koch Industries.10 Chase Koch was an executive vice president at Koch Agronomic Services, a plant nutrient and fertilizer subsidiary. In 2017, he jumped into the tech world, founding a venture capital division focused on high-growth technology companies called Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT).11
The Koch network gained notoriety for underwriting a conservative revolution across America. But with its tech investments, the Kochs started to send some of their millions to tech-focused, centrist and even left-leaning groups that have been longtime allies of Google. By one estimate, the Kochs have quietly spent more than $10 million to defend the search giant and other tech companies from policy threats in Washington.12
For Google, there are clear benefits to collaborating with the Koch network. The Kochs’ influence with conservatives has helped Google navigate a new Washington, one where the ties it forged with the Democratic establishment during the Obama years are less valuable than they had been.13
The Kochs’ anti-regulation efforts have been particularly helpful. In addition to their ad campaign aimed at state attorneys general, and another targeting members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Google also enlisted the Kochs’ considerable firepower in the fight to protect Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields Google and other tech platforms from liability for user-generated content. This unsettled area of law is so important to Google that the company warns investors that changes to it “could adversely affect” its business.14
The Kochs’ influence with conservatives has helped Google navigate a new Washington
Less clear is what the Kochs get out of their relationship with Google. The infusion of Google’s millions has been welcomed by the Kochs’ network of libertarian advocates and activists. The Kochs also have their own technology interests to protect. Beyond their recent investments in the sector, any regulation of Google and Facebook, for example, would also seemingly apply to i360, the Kochs’ own political data mining company.15
The alliance with Google also bolsters the ongoing rebranding of the Kochs, whose name was considered poison in left-leaning Silicon Valley just a few years ago.16 Chase Koch in particular has moved away from hard-line conservative politics, and tried to give the family’s activism a softer edge.17
As the younger Koch recalled recently, he was “blown away by how much common ground” he found on one of his early visits to Silicon Valley. “We had almost the same core principles.”18
1 https://www.ft.com/content/c816b3da-3077-11e9-8744-e7016697f225 ; https://www.prwatch.org/news/2013/11/12319/google-funding-grover-norquist-heritage-action-alec-and-more
2 https://www.googletransparencyproject.org/articles/lobbyist-garage ; https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/judicial/345195-defending-crucial-protections-for-internet-platforms
7 https://www.linkedin.com/in/rachel-whetstone-497890127/ ; https://www.prweek.com/article/1588194/6-rachel-whetstone-netflix
8 https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/fdb484c8-99a1-32a3-83be-20108374b985 ; https://www.atlasnetwork.org/about/our-story ; https://www.atlasnetwork.org/news/article/antony-fisher-entrepreneur-for-liberty
11 https://news.kochind.com/news/2017/koch-disruptive-technologies-ready-to-transform?mod=article_inline ; https://pitchbook.com/profiles/investor/232200-10
16 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/paloma/daily-202/2019/04/03/daily-202-charles-koch-wants-a-more-open-border-immigration-is-one-reason-he-s-backed-away-from-the-gop/5ca38a9b1b326b0f7f38f2eb/ ; https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/justinesharrock/charles-koch-stumbles-in-silicon-valley