Twitter’s handle on D.C. evolving
By Alex Byers
Twitter took New York on Thursday. Is Washington next?
First-day trading for the company closed around $45 on the New York Stock Exchange — more than 70 percent above its initial public offering price. Now the tech titan, already an established Silicon Valley player and long a D.C. outsider, may have little choice but to get more involved in the Washington game — as was the case for Facebook and Google.
The signs of political apathy were already shifting before the social network announced its plans to go public. The 7-year-old company with nearly 250 million active users and already a Washington staple for politicians to get their messages out, registered a lobbyist and set up a political action committee in August.
The company has already lobbied on immigration reform, cybersecurity, consumer privacy, changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and more. It also signed on to a major push for patent reform in October — one of the hottest topics for technology firms this fall.
Tax issues may not be far behind. Just this week, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) pointed to Twitter as a potential beneficiary of the kind of stock options tax loophole they want closed.
Going public “broadens your exposure to various regulatory and tax issues,” said Ralph Hellmann, the longtime top lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council who now co-runs his own practice. “It oftentimes leads to a need to expand your Washington presence to look at those issues.”
Twitter declined to comment for this story and has been in a Securities and Exchange Commission-mandated quiet period.
The company has a small office in Washington, but its two core staffers are well-known and well-versed in tech policy. Colin Crowell, head of global public policy, was a longtime aide to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and served former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. Will Carty, Twitter’s lobbyist, is a former GOP aide to the Senate Commerce Committee.
As a major player that wants to expand its user base in America and abroad, the company has a plethora of issues to choose from now that it’s officially throwing its lobbying weight around Washington. And while Twitter’s first quarterly lobbying spend — $40,000 — is pocket change compared with Google, Facebook, Apple and most other tech companies, the company reported being active on the full gamut of tech policy issues.
The company for years has stayed out of the policy limelight compared with other big technology names that have increasingly embraced Washington. It wasn’t represented, for example, in a Silicon Valley-wide show of support for immigration reform in March. And it drew some flak from other tech companies in not going dark to oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act in early 2012.
With an IPO under its belt and a soaring stock price, the company’s profile is even higher. And that means more Washington eyes on its moves.
“Now that you have to make public filings as a company, there are more targets for lawmakers to shoot at,” said Andrew Shore, a tech lobbyist and former GOP leadership aide. “So you sort of know what questions to start to ask of a public company as opposed to a private company — you know what they do but you don’t know really know how they operate.”
To that point: Levin and McCain have already invoked Twitter in their ongoing criticism of corporate tax rules.
“It’s ridiculous,” McCain said. “What we’re pointing out is that there’s a huge loophole. Facebook did the same thing. It’s ridiculous. We’re making people billionaires, and taxpayers are getting almost nothing.”
At the same time, Twitter has largely skirted scrutiny on an issue that many other Silicon Valley firms have been grilled on: its collection and use of user data.
The company has what might be the best privacy reputation of any major tech company since it honors requests from users who don’t want to have their Web browsing history used to tailor advertisements. It’s also avoided attention that its competitors received after the first reports about the NSA’s PRISM program since it wasn’t named in the documents disclosed by leaker Edward Snowden.
“On the privacy issue, my gosh, I’m sending a letter a month to Google or Yahoo or Facebook,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairman of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus. “But on Twitter, it doesn’t seem to have been a problem.”
No two tech companies — nor any, for that matter — follow the same path. But the two biggest companies mentioned in the same breath as Twitter have cozied up to Washington in recent years. Facebook’s lobbying more than doubled after its IPO. Google, which didn’t have a Washington presence when it went public in 2004, is now one of Washington’s biggest spenders.
Even so, it’s not necessarily that Twitter’s move to go public is the cause for putting down deeper roots in Washington. It’s that getting to the IPO point signals a maturation that can mean more Washington touch points.
“I look at the progression as a company grows as what really dictates what they do in Washington,” said Joshua Ackil, a co-founder of the tech-focused Franklin Square Group. “Part of growing and getting bigger and going public also suggests that you’re the right size to have a lobbying presence.”
That means Twitter could have more to do in Washington than just make sure it doesn’t run afoul of the tax man. As a publicly traded Twitter cements itself among the cream of Silicon Valley’s crop, it may have more muscle than ever before.
“When they get through the public offering process, and they are a publicly traded company, they are established,” said Mike McGeary, co-founder of Engine Advocacy, a group that helps connect startups and government. “Right now, they are a global company that has reach to a marketplace of users all across the world. And so that presents a number of opportunities.”
Source: Politico Pro Technology, March 18, 2013