As regulators ramp up their antitrust scrutiny of Google, the tech giant’s global policy team is still adapting to a sweeping reorganization instituted by its new public policy chief, Karan Bhatia, a former longtime General Electric executive. Some key roles remain unfilled, most notably the top U.S. lobbyist job, which has been vacant since November. Google also has yet to announce who will lead policy for the company at YouTube and for the European region.
The leadership gaps could put the company at a disadvantage as the Department of Justice reportedly examines whether Google businesses violated antitrust law. While the agency’s review of Google is thought to be in its early stages, it comes after months of pressure from consumers, tech industry competitors and some Democratic and Republican lawmakers who say the company has grown too powerful.
• Key roles vacant following Google policy team reorganization
• Top U.S. lobbying role remains unfilled
• Possible federal probe raises stakes for policy team
Google, whose vast operations include the world’s dominant search engine and advertising platform, already has been battling regulators in Europe, where it has been fined more than $9 billion over what European Union officials have called anti-competitive practices such as abusing its dominant position in online search advertising. Google is appealing those decisions, while the EU has said that more investigations could be coming.
The in-house policy team of about 250 staffers includes lobbyists who seek to influence legislation and regulation in the U.S. and abroad, and experts who inform the company’s rules on everything from content moderation to products like Google Cloud. Until November 2018, the top lobbying job in Washington, D.C., was held by former Republican Rep. Susan Molinari of New York.
One possible reason it has taken so long to fill her role is the company needs candidates with a combination of political connections and management experience, two people familiar with the matter said. There is a desire to land candidates with some or both of those qualities. Google declined to comment on the job vacancies or other details of the reorganization.
The policy team is operating with a temporary structure, with many staffers reporting to managers on a short-term basis while the company fills manager and director positions, some of which can be seen on Google’s jobs site, including public policy manager for artificial intelligence research and a manager for government affairs and public policy for U.S. technology agencies.
Applying for Jobs
Mr. Bhatia, who was hired last summer, unveiled some changes to the policy division’s structure late this winter, culminating in a three-day meeting for the policy team held in San Francisco and Sunnyvale, Calif. For a few dozen global policy staffers, the news was unsettling: They didn’t have jobs set in the new organizational chart, and they would have to apply for new positions or leave the company.
The meeting, which was attended by policy employees from around the world, was meant to rally excitement around the reorganization, but it ended up being awkward for those who didn’t know whether they would have a role in the organization, the two people familiar with the matter said. The details of how Mr. Bhatia rolled out the reorganization haven’t previously been reported.
The meeting took on the vibe of a job fair, one of the people said. Staffers began to jockey for open roles immediately, making it even more tension-filled.
In the months following the meeting, at least four longtime Washington, D.C., policy staffers have departed, including policy head Adam Kovacevich, who took a top policy job at scooter operator Lime.
Mr. Bhatia has streamlined the company’s policy experts, who handle topics ranging from copyright to trade, to a central team. The approach mirrors structures he led at GE, two former GE colleagues said.
The restructuring at Google wasn’t the first time Mr. Bhatia was involved in a corporate makeover. A lawyer by training, Mr. Bhatia served as deputy U.S. trade representative during the administration of President George W. Bush, then spent a decade at GE, where he oversaw a few reorganizations of the company’s policy operation. A former GE colleague of Mr. Bhatia’s said that during the third reorganization, Mr. Bhatia did something similar to what he recently did at Google, prompting longtime staffers to reapply to their jobs or to new ones within the organization.
While the reorganizations rattled some employees, Mr. Bhatia was generally popular. A former GE colleague described him as a goofy, energetic policy nerd who loves baseball.
Before he left GE, colleagues there presented him with skinny jeans, sneakers and a hoodie so he would fit in better in Silicon Valley after years of wearing suits at his previous jobs, the former colleague said.
“[Mr. Bhatia] is intellectually curious, the type of leader who really elevates your game, and is very big on fostering a culture of collaboration,” said Tara DiJulio, a federal relations executive at GE. “To me, there is no one better than someone like Karan to come into Google, break down silos, make sure you have the right talent in the right spots and be strategic.”
The influence of Google, Facebook and their peers in the tech industry has become a potent issue in the campaign for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called for the companies to be broken up, and a number of Democratic rivals have followed suit.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have derided Google for its handling of election meddling by Russian actors on YouTube in 2016; user privacy, especially on Android devices; and Google’s dominant position in the online search market. Google also has been criticized for exploring the idea of operating in some capacity in China while bowing to pressure from employees by pulling out of a deal to do artificial intelligence projects with the Department of Defense.
On Monday, meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee announced it was launching a probe of antitrust issues involving big tech companies, opening a new, bipartisan front in the tech industry’s mounting battles in Washington.
Mr. Bhatia will have to steer Google into the next phase of the company explaining its policies and business model to governments in the U.S. and abroad.
Ms. DiJulio said it is nothing he hasn’t dealt with before. When he came to GE, it was a tough time for the D.C. office, she said.
“Karan’s steadfast leadership was critical for our success. He’s cool under pressure.”