Blogs & Comment

Silicon Valley enters politics: Erica Alini

Geeks learn to lobby.

Silicon Valley is no longer apolitical. The industry has stepped up its political contributions, snatched up some of Washington’s finest consultants and lobbyists and just launched the first tech super PAC—or political action committee—led by none other than that hoodie-wearing, 28-year old social media whiz Mark Zuckerberg.

His Facebook Inc. spent $2.4 million in Beltway contributions during the first three months of the year, four times as much as last year, Politico reports. Apple’s Washington spending was $720,000, a pittance by major corporations’ standards, but a noticeable bump up from $500,000 last year. Amazon and Ebay posted similar increases as they battle a new push to tax online sales.

But the battle for Congressional votes isn’t just heating up behind the scenes. Acting separately from their respective corporate entities, some of Silicon Valley’s top celebrities—including Yahoo! chief Maryssa Mayer, Google’s Eric Schmidt and Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer—are putting their faces and deep pockets behind Fwd.us, an umbrella group launched by Zuckerberg in early April that’s waging a high profile campaign to loosen immigration hurdles for foreign tech and science talent.

It’s a stark evolution for an industry that used to be happy to ignore politicians and be ignored by them. For a long time after the Internet boom of the late 1990s, geeks seemed to be under the impression that they could forever grow and prosper without worrying about legislators on the other side of the country.

The rude awakening came last year, when the techies were blindsided by SOPA and PIPA, two Congressional bills that would have made Internet companies pay steep penalties for illegal downloads of music and video content on their sites. Supporters of the Senate’s SOPA, lead by Hollywood, shelled out $118 million to support the draft legislation, eight times the measly $14 million contributed by opponents of the bill (which were mostly tech companies), according to campaign-finance tracking website MapLight.

In the end, Silicon Valley manage to thwart the legislation anyway, by mounting a very effective grass-roots mobilization campaign that included a temporary blackout by the likes of Wikipedia and Craigslist. But the scare seems to have focused minds on the importance of paying attention to what goes on in Washington.

While stepped-up corporate spending on lobbyists seemed a logical next step, though, the parallel effort to push for immigration reform using the personal clout of the tech industry’s star CEOs is far more daring and, potentially, risky.

Fwd.us sought to avoid getting caught up in partisan politics by adopting a strategy of backing lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who support an immigration overhaul. Only a few weeks after its formal debut, though, the organization has already run into trouble with environmental groups after its subsidiaries produced a couple of TV ads touting the pro-Keystone XL and pro-Arctic drilling positions of two Congressmen they backed.

The potential for P.R. disasters is serious. Immigration is a far more contentious issue than online piracy and with U.S. unemployment still high, a bunch of super-rich political amateurs could easily attract popular antipathy. Zuckerberg, in particular, whom Hollywood has already immortalized as a socially inept, know-it-all Harvard dorm prodigy, seems particularly vulnerable.