Silicon Valley’s new spin on lobbying
By Michelle Quinn
SAN FRANCISCO — Silicon Valley was once criticized for not “getting” Washington and being slow to start lobbying.
Now, as it celebrates what appears to be a victory in its Capitol Hill fight over fast-moving copyright bills, the tech industry may see itself as lobbying’s innovator, using the tools it created to beat the opposition at its own game on its own turf.
“There’s a new kind of lobbying,” said Ron Conway, a prominent investor in the Valley. “It’s from the grass roots. It’s as pure as lobbying can get — individual to individual.”
The events of the past week have been “a tremendous watershed moment in lobbying and advocacy,” said Andrew Shore, a tech industry lobbyist at Jochum Shore & Trossevin. “Anyone who doesn’t pay attention to it will be at a severe business disadvantage in the coming years.”
After Wednesday’s Internet blackout protest and Friday’s decision by congressional leaders to suspend both House and Senate copyright bills, tech activists and observers are wondering if Silicon Valley needs to play by the old rules at all. Maybe it can just rile the masses using the Internet if the issue is important enough. Or, maybe it doesn’t have to — doing it once may have been enough to boost the industry’s political clout, said Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA and founder of the blog The Volokh Conspiracy.
“Google knows if it has to do it again, it has worked once,” he said. “And legislators know that Google knows that. And Google knows that legislators know that it can do it. That kind of knowledge changes the power dynamic in some issues even if Google never speaks out in the same way again.”
For years, the tech industry, smaller and newer than other industries, has lagged in its lobbying effort and political giving. The industry has been caught by surprise by some bills and hasn’t been able to push for its causes as effectively as others.
It has created tech organizations like TechNet to keep a closer eye on Washington.
Yet the tech industry’s forays into D.C. politics have also been undermined by regulators. Poised to be the tech leader in Washington in the late 1990s, Microsoft saw its political capital erode after a bruising antitrust probe. Some say that cost the company its ability to be a leader speaking on policies that affect tech.
The industry is fractured not only by sectors but also fault-lines of antipathy among competitors and old friends.
Still, the industry has recently appeared to increase its presence in D.C. Google and Facebook have added to their lobbying ranks in the past year. Netflix has slowly expanded its team, as has Amazon. But many of the Internet companies involved in the fight this week against the copyright bills, such as Reddit and WordPress and Mozilla, don’t even have lobbyists in D.C. Wikipedia just hired its first.
Lobbyists did play a key role, say those close to the opposition campaign. They were critical in alerting the tech industry of the bills’ potential problems and amplifying tech industry concerns on the Hill.
“Organizations like TechNet and the NetCoalition educated me and people like me,” Conway said. “We do need the lobbying organizations to educate us. But I don’t think we need the lobbying organization to talk to the legislators.”
Tech lobbyists and industry groups acknowledge that it was difficult to highlight major problems and issues with key lawmakers as the copyright bills were being written because they say the entertainment industry had such a tight grip on the Judiciary committees.
Tech lobbyists had to cast a much wider net to policymakers outside the Judiciary committees, which may have caught the opposition off guard. That required extensive shoe leather lobbying to weaken some of the congressional support for the bills, which signaled within committees that the support wasn’t as strong as it should be.
They were able to warn some congressional leaders of an impending disaster — “this is a big freight train,” said one tech lobbyist.
Even the pro-SOPA forces acknowledge that the use of the Internet to beat back piracy legislation was “a game changer” because “inside the Beltway meetings and one-pagers got swamped by misinformation and inaccuracies that captivated Internet users and led to a stampede,” according to an entertainment industry executive.
“Policymakers who could have read the bill, and who know about the process for negotiation and resolving disagreements, instead ran for the hills. In the future, the lobbying community is going to have to better understand and use today’s technology tools,” the executive said.
Among the tech industry’s tools, the blackout of Internet sites may work again for future issues with care taken not to alienate users, observers say. Other tools, which include using social media for organizing campaigns to whip up a group, are here to stay. “Facebook and Twitter gave the tech world this gift of open communication and we can use it to help the technology industry to represent itself with legislators,” Conway said.
Most significantly, the coalition built to stop the copyright bills may see itself as a new unified Internet force as it looks for ways to press its next issues.
“It’s not like we have to build a social infrastructure. It’s built,” said Mike McGeary, a strategist with a venture firm in San Francisco and part of a group called Engine Advocacy. “The next question is what are we going to do with it.”
“The political industry itself is under massive disruption,” wrote David Binetti, a tech entrepreneur and founder of Votizen, a political engagement site, in a recent post on TechCrunch. “This is just the beginning.”
Source: Politico, January 23, 2012