Titans of tech seek more influence

By Paul Harris

Darlings of Silicon Valley are moving into politics, paying big money to get their views before the right people.

Mark Zuckerberg. Photo / AP
Mark Zuckerberg. Photo / AP

One day in February about 40 noisy protesters gathered outside the home of Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg in Palo Alto, in California's Silicon Valley. They chanted and held up signs as a small, select group of people arrived.

It must have been an unusual experience for Zuckerberg, 28, whose position as head of Facebook is more likely to inspire admiration or plain curiosity from ordinary Americans rather than outraged, placard-waving demonstrators. But this was no ordinary party Zuckerberg was holding. It was his first political fundraiser and his choice of candidate raised eyebrows: the Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie.

Under the gaze of the protesters, Republican bigwigs such as Condoleezza Rice started arriving to pay homage to - and write cheques for - a governor who has taken stances against gay marriage and raising taxes on rich people while embarking on a union-bashing crusade against teachers in his home state.

But the fundraiser was just one of Zuckerberg's moves into politics. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that he was in the middle of helping to organise a political advocacy group with other top tech leaders.

The as yet unnamed organisation would lobby for reform on issues such as immigration, education and scientific research.

It is a remarkable development but also inevitable. The tech sector that has sprung up from Silicon Valley and other development hotspots across the US has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry whose top companies - such as Google and Facebook and Twitter - have fundamentally reshaped how most of us live. As it grew in power and influence, it was bound to enter the realm of politics, seeking to change policy and win allies across the political spectrum.

To Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and Big Banking, you can now add Big Tech. Which raises an important question that is only rarely asked: as they increasingly seek to shape American politics, what do the titans of tech actually want?

Kate Losse should know. She was an early employee at Facebook and rose to being Zuckerberg's speechwriter before leaving to write a book about her experiences, The Boy Kings.

It seems her book was aptly titled, and recent tech advances into the political world, especially the creation of a well-funded political organisation, are probably only the tip of an iceberg. "The fact that this sort of development is happening suggests there is a political project," Losse said. "That is why it is important to ask questions now.

"Otherwise we might wake up one day and there is a whole system in place that we did not see coming."

As with any major industry, the people involved in Silicon Valley have political views across the spectrum. It is a world where people are happy with ethnic diversity and sexual freedoms but distrustful of big government and see the "heroic entrepreneur" as an aspirational ideal.

Some of the agenda can be seen in the issues and politicians the industry is seeking to back. For example, it is lobbying aggressively to relax immigration laws on the highly educated.

Tech bosses are pouring millions of dollars into lobbying firms. They are bucking a trend too. Overall, the amount spent on lobbying by all industries has been falling since 2010 and the number of lobbyists in Washington has been declining since 2007. But not in tech; the sector has grown each year since 2009, signing up more big-name firms and pouring in millions more dollars.

Google's informal mantra of "Don't be evil" has helped to craft its image as a socially responsive firm that would be fun to work for. Facebook markets itself simply as a way of connecting people. Advocates of Twitter say the company helped to bring down dictatorships in the Arab Spring. The legions of Apple fans believe their favourite firm's sleek products make the world a better - and much more aesthetically pleasing - place to live and work.

But wary critics see that happy, hippyish public image as a potential trojan horse for a mega-powerful industry hellbent on pursuing its self-interest. Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc might be fun and convenient and make our lives better, but their commercial interests are as real as any oil company, defence manufacturer or bank.

When Zuckerberg talks of a "Facebook nation" it is not idle marketing speak; he means it.

"They are trading the very nature of social interaction," Losse says. "They are very much in people's lives. Don't mistake these companies for fun. They don't see it that way."

- Observer

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