(Bloomberg) -- If Google is feeling pressure from the government scrutiny bearing down, the company isn’t showing it. Last Friday the search giant announced it was paying $2.1 billion to buy Fitbit, the struggling maker of fitness gadgets. The deal was Google’s second multi-billion dollar acquisition in the last several months, flying in the face of repeated critiques from public officials that large tech companies are stifling competition by buying startups.
“By attempting this deal at this moment, Alphabet Inc.’s Google is signaling that it will continue to flex and expand its power in spite of this immense scrutiny,” David Cicilline, the Democratic congressman leading Congress’s investigation into antitrust issues in tech, said in a statement.
People close to Google say the decision to move forward with the Fitbit acquisition bears the fingerprints of one of its key leaders: Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer. Company lawyers don’t inspire the same public fascination as young tech founders. But Walker has quietly become one of the most influential people within Google over the last four years. By extension, that makes him one of Silicon Valley’s most important players as the industry enters a moment of unprecedented political peril. Unlike Facebook Inc., which has spent much of the last year trying to explain its policies to a skeptical public, Google has kept its head down and conducted its business as usual. In September, when attorneys general from 48 states announced an antitrust investigation into the company, Walker’s department didn’t bother to send an email to staff explaining the situation. “You take it seriously, but don’t overreact,” said Matt Tanielian of the Franklin Square Group, a lobbying firm. “That's a sign of someone like Kent being in charge.” Walker's supporters see his leadership style as a welcome sign of corporate maturity. Other people see a company that hasn’t adjusted its approach to changing circumstances. For the first time in its history, Google has no shortage of political enemies, yet it seems unwilling to engage them, according to Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy. “They’re so used to winning that they don’t necessarily push forward with maximum effort,” she said. “There’s a lack of recognition that they’re not in another time. It’s not 10 years ago. It’s not five years ago. It’s not even two years ago.” Sohn, who has known Walker for years, refers to him as “a lawyer’s lawyer,” a common compliment for those who have worked with him. But Google, whose founders have receded from public view and whose CEO, Sundar Pichai, is unusually reserved for a Silicon Valley CEO, is lacking a charismatic champion at the top. It has a good attorney, when what it might really need is a good politician. Walker, 58, spent his childhood on a series of military bases, before attending Harvard University and Stanford Law School. He spent his early career as a federal prosecutor, and did stints at eBay Inc., Netscape Communications Corp., and AOL before joining Google in 2006. At first, Google’s small legal department was consumed with legal challenges over copyright and privacy. But several years into Walker’s tenure, the company began facing its first challenges with antitrust investigations. Walker’s background is not in antitrust law, and he didn’t oversee Google’s 2013 settlement with U.S. regulators over competition. But he has had ample opportunity to learn the subject. “Kent, frankly, really grew with the company,” said Shirley Tilghman, who served on Google's board from 2005 to 2018. Walker, who declined an interview request, has become a prominent figure within Silicon Valley’s insular circle of top lawyers. His protégés have gone on to lead the legal departments at Twitter Inc., Pinterest Inc., Dropbox Inc. and other Silicon Valley firms; many went into the Obama Administration. He’ also a typical Google executive in many ways. Several friends and former colleagues described him as an eager polymath, an obsessive, hands-on, manager—and a huge science fiction fan. Walker has a reputation of coming to conversations armed with data to back up his arguments, his friends said, and considers the word "thoughtful" to be the highest compliment. “He’s intellectually ambidextrous,” said Adam Kovacevich, who spent 12 years at Google's policy division. “He has always cautioned everyone to take Google’s critics seriously.” Walker’s purview expanded when Google created Alphabet to be its parent company in 2015. When it did so, the company’s co-founders and its longtime legal chief, David Drummond, stepped back from Google’s daily operations. Google’s head of policy, Rachel Whetstone, left for Uber the same year, and Walker took over her policy portfolio. Last summer, he became Google’s chief legal officer and head of global affairs, taking control of oversight of corporate policy, cyber-security and philanthropy. Now, nearly every contentious issue at Google eventually bubbles up to Walker—antitrust controversies in Europe, debates over digital data privacy and artificial intelligence ethics, what to do about China, confrontation with Google’s workforce over sexual harassment and contract workers. Walker also plays a key role in managing relationships with governments, a task normally associated with chief executives. Not every company entrusts its top lawyer with so much power. “For Google, it’s a huge, huge portfolio,” said Doug Melamed, the former general counsel at Intel Corp. “The fact that he has it is testament to the respect he commands with the board and other executives. There are signs of strain, however. Attrition among the legal and policy staff has been bad enough that one former Google official referred to Walker as “the only one left.” To run global affairs, Walker hired Caroline Atkinson, a former Obama official based in Washington, D.C., but she lasted less than two years. Walker spent another year searching for a replacement before hiring Karan Bhatia, a former Bush administration official, last June. This spring, Walker confided to his friend Melamed, the former tech lawyer, that he felt “spread a little thin.” Walker has also become a target in recent years for current and former employees who think Google has sacrificed its idealistic culture in favor of conventional commercialism. Former employees describe how the company’s legal and policy departments once engaged in robust debates over sensitive topics, but say the back-and-forth faded as Walker consolidated power. Meredith Whittaker, a former Google researcher who has become a prominent critic of the company, argued that this is particularly important because of the impact Google’s policies have outside the company. “He's put there to protect the company from liability, which also means protecting Google from being accountable to its workers and to the public,” she said. “In that way, he's doing all of us—those affected by Google's services and the workers there—a great disservice.” Trust between Google’s management and its restive workforce has deteriorated since the revelation that the company was working on Project Maven, a Pentagon program to use computer vision software to analyze drone imagery. Google said last year it would stop working on the project, setting off a round of recriminations in Washington. According to his critics, Walker has shown an inclination to stymie the kind of activism that led Google to back out of Maven. An all-staff memo from Walker, sent earlier this year, reminded employees that accessing certain “need to know” documents was a fireable offense, which some employees interpreted as an attempt to stifle activism. A Google representative said at the time this did not represent a new policy. In August, the company sent out new “community guidelines” to staff warning them not to spend time debating “non-work topics.” Several current employees complained that what they saw as Walker’s desire to tamp down political expressions was an attempt to mollify conservative critics who accuse Google of liberal bias. Walker’s obscurity may be undercutting his influence outside the company. Eric Schmidt, the company’s former chief executive officer and executive chairman, largely served as Google’s public face during his tenure. Schmidt left in 2017, and Sundar Pichai, his successor, cuts a lower profile. Walker now takes many of the high-level meetings that Schmidt did, but he does so without the cachet of being a chief executive. When Walker planned to testify last summer at a Congressional hearing on Russian election interference, the Senate demanded Google send Pichai instead. Google simply didn't show, and committee staff pointedly set out an empty chair where Pichai would have sat.A Democratic staffer in Congress, who asked to not to be identified discussing private matters, said Walker has been much more reluctant to communicate with lawmakers than his counterparts at other tech giants. “Say what you want about Facebook, at least they’re apologetic,” said Sohn. At Google, she continued, “they haven’t admitted to any error. That might be a mistake.”
--With assistance from Ben Brody and Alistair Barr.
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