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Is Britain’s Government Too Close to Google?

David Cameron by World Economic ForumWhen you think of British politicians, “cutting edge” doesn’t exactly come to mind. Instead, you probably think of the gothic excess of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, the Queen’s appearance at the annual state opening or the somber black door of 10 Downing Street. British government has long been, after all, the preserve of ennobled lords, Winston Churchill and other hoary old privileged men of one vintage or another.

It may surprise you, then, to learn that Britain’s ruling Conservative-Liberal government is accused of being in the back pocket of the less-dusty Google (s goog).

That’s the criticism the Guardian levels today in a piece that examines the government’s review of copyright law. Known as the Hargreaves Review, the study could help rewrite Britain’s IP rules for a wired world. In the article, critics accuse British prime minister David Cameron of prioritizing the needs of Google over those of the UK’s creative industries. To quote from the story:

By promising a new copyright regime “fit for the internet age,” to boost the growth-led recovery he is pinning his electoral hopes upon, the prime minister even appeared to have pre-judged the outcome of the Hargreaves review.

“I was a Cameron supporter but he has been deceived by the people whispering in his ear,” says Mike Batt, the songwriter, producer and founder of Dramatico, Katie Melua’s record label. “It’s complete bollocks.”

So is Britain’s government too close to Google? And what’s the evidence?

In most cases, the connection largely rests on the relationship between two senior figures in both camps. Rachel Whetstone, Google’s global director of PR, is married to Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s chief political strategist. Imagine if Microsoft’s chief spin doctor — currently Frank X Shaw — was married to David Axelrod, Obama’s former senior adviser (okay, so their marriage might only be legal in a few states, but you know what I mean).

It’s not just marriage that unites the two groups, however. Whetstone herself spent a decade working for the Conservatives, including as chief of staff to previous Conservative leader Michael Howard, and was once the “queen bee” of the so-called Notting Hill set that convened around Cameron. Whetstone and Hilton were also godparents to Cameron’s son Ivan.

But this concern is not entirely new. Over the last few years there’s been a regular stream of stories using this connection as grist for the mill.

However, it’s not just pillow talk that critics are worried about. Over the last few years — both after he became Britain’s prime minister and before — Cameron has regularly name-checked Google, suggesting that UK patient health records should be stored with Google; and that he wanted to mimic Google’s bottom-up methods with something he called “a new era of Google government.”

It was his connection through Whetstone that got him a speech at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference in 2006, where he told the assembled executives that “what Google has achieved is truly amazing”; the company subsequently paid for him to visit California the following year.

It’s almost impossible to know what the impact of those connections has been, but whether or not you think that this amounts to successful lobbying, it is clear that Cameron has tried to harness the power of Google as a brand. Perhaps that’s no surprise, after all it’s one that most mainstream consumers link with innovation — and that’s something that the British leader wants to use to his advantage.

The other thing to realize is that West coast technology giants have held significant sway over Britain’s government for some time. Whether it’s the fact that former Liberal MP Richard Allen is now Facebook’s top European lobbyist, or that the government plans to construct a $321 million ‘Tech City’ in East London with commitments from Intel, Facebook and (yes) Google, it’s clear that there’s a certain degree of symbiosis there.

And then there is the longer-term influence of Microsoft, which has been instrumental in some of the British government’s ballooning IT spending over the past decade. Its most disastrous moment was the £12.7 billion ($20 billion) project to digitize the National Health Service, driven in large part by a vision that Bill Gates spun to Tony Blair over one of their many meetings. Blair, who admitted that he was a technophobe, was so entranced by that vision, he ended up signing off on the world’s biggest public sector IT project.

This is, perhaps, the relationship that David Cameron should be thinking hard about every time he doffs his cap to Mountain View — one of blind faith in disruptive ideas that results in unexpected expense and subservience. When I interviewed Bill Gates a few years ago, he inferred that he was helping steer the NHS project from afar. “Sure, I talk with Tony Blair regularly to check that progress is going well,” he told me. “It’s important to us.”

The result of that relationship? The NHS scheme was canceled last year.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Photograph used under CC license courtesy of the World Economic Forum

7 Responses to “Is Britain’s Government Too Close to Google?”

  1. Well sure, if the likes of Mike Batt at the BPI and Fergal Sharkey say Cameron is in Google’s pocket, then clearly it must be true!

    Seriously, the recording industry have shown they’re prepared to do just about anything to claw back their gatekeeper status so they can continue to keep running to the bank with over 80% of all earnings of all artists. It’s about time the press stopped taking their claims at face value.

    • I don’t think trading one set of corporate overlords for another is how you make good, well-balanced policy on things like copyright. Although I think copyright reform is long overdue, the idea of Google heavily influencing policy for its own benefit is no better than the BPI doing the same.

      • Absolutely, clearly my sarcasm failed to come across. I don’t for one moment believe Google and Cameron have any sort of inappropriate relationship – and if I ever did come to believe that it wouldn’t be because the BPI and UK Music said so ;-)

        The one interesting thing here is that the fact that Cameron is coming under criticism by the aforementioned, makes it seem more likely that this review is not in fact a cover for giving the recording industry everything they ask for – unlike the shenanigans which resulted in the DE Act.

    • Bobbie Johnson

      Cameron’s chief spin doctor until recently was, of course, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who resigned over links to a phone hacking scandal under his watch as a tabloid boss. He’s been replaced by a former BBC executive, Craig Oliver.

      But yes, Steve Hilton’s job is not a public-facing spin doctor in the mould of Alistair Campbell, if that’s what you’re implying.

  2. Surely the problem was that the previous administration had been too close to old media like record labels and film companies? With the then BPI lobbyist running as a prospective labour candidate and Peter Mandelson’s famous dinner with David Geffen in Corfu.

    I for one would welcome a party that was a lot closer to Google than it currently is.