Google has chosen a former White House economist to lead its global lobbying operation as it pursues a less confrontational stance in its dealings with governments around the world.
The appointment of Caroline Atkinson as its new head of global policy comes as the world’s biggest internet company seeks to douse spreading political fires caused by its growing business clout, its impact on personal privacy and other issues.
Ms Atkinson, a former International Monetary Fund official who holds both UK and US nationality, is known as a backroom negotiator and conciliator with decades of experience on the international economic stage.
The choice marks a change of tack for Google and a departure from other big internet companies. It follows a backlash against US tech companies in Europe and new tensions in Washington over their refusal to weaken encryption standards that critics claim aid terrorist networks like ISIS.
Google suffered a severe setback in Brussels last year after the collapse of a tentative agreement to head off a competition complaint. The hard bargain it drove with the European Commission angered rivals and eventually proved politically unpalatable, leading Brussels to backtrack and hit it with an antitrust indictment last year.
Since then it has sought to overhaul its approach to international diplomacy, burying its confrontational stance in favour of a more conciliatory style. The change echoes Microsoft more than a decade ago, after it was hit by a competition complaint in Brussels.
A similar switch in Google’s dealings with Wall Street, involving the hiring of Morgan Stanley executive Ruth Porat as chief financial officer last year, has paid dividends, contributing to a strong rally in the stock price of its holding company, Alphabet.
Ms Atkinson has acted as President Obama’s representative at the G7 and G20 summits, and co-ordinated US policy on issues from global economics and trade to energy and climate change.
People who have worked with her say her low-key style and personal network built up over years of international economic diplomacy should help Google as it tries to dampen a growing range of conflicts. “Whether she’s negotiating with the Treasury or foreign governments, she is calm and determined and gets what she needs,” said Lawrence Summers, former US Treasury secretary.
Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser to Allianz, credited Ms Atkinson with “enormous experience; an impressive ability to quickly assess complicated and diverse issues; and a strong work ethic”.
In high-profile policy hires by other leading internet companies recently, Amazon picked White House press secretary Jay Carney, while Uber turned to former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. Rather than picking a frontline US political operative, Google’s choice reflects an attempt to strike a more diplomatic and international note.
Ms Atkinson’s predecessor as head of policy, Rachel Whetstone, had worked as an adviser to UK prime minister David Cameron and was not averse to picking public fights: in a feud with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, she taunted the company over an anti-Brussels campaign run by its Sun newspaper.
A former official at the Bank of England and the US Treasury as well as the IMF, Ms Atkinson began her career as a journalist at The Economist, The Times and the Washington Post.
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