For most industries, lobbying D.C. is part of doing business in the United States. But while the establishment industries such as oil, banking, and automotive industries have had decades of experience lobbying Congressmen for favors, the internet companies have mostly shunned the Washington pay-to-play routine. But in recent years, particularly since the SOPA fight of last year, that is changing as internet companies such as Facebook and Google become more politically engaged.
The most visible example of this shift is Mark Zuckerberg's new organization. Launched as a 501c4 in April of this year, the group is called FWD.us, and is being mobilized to push for immigration and education reform, issues that affect the tech industry's ability to access trained workers. Right out of the starting block, it caused a stir last spring by running ads praising conservative senators' support for such conservative causes as the Keystone pipeline and drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in order to provide political cover for a potentially unpopular vote in favor of the Senate immigration bill. The group even ran ads on the Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh talk radio shows. Progressives were furious, and several high profile members withdrew from the group. Nevertheless, the group is pressing on with an event this week to keep immigration reform alive.
Zuckerberg isn't the only internet mogul getting in on the action. Google has developed a powerful presence in Washington in recent years. As recently as 2007, as noted by the Wall Street Journal, Google spent less than $2 million lobbying. Now, Google has 13 lobbying firms on its payroll, for which it spends upwards of $7 million. It also has followed the well-worn path of establishing a political action committee, called GoogleNETPAC, and hiring a Washington insider to lead their lobbying efforts. Last year, former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari signed on to head up the lobbying effort.
Tech firms are also banding together to influence policy. 11 months ago, the heads of Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, among other organizations, created the Internet Association. Dubbing itself "The Unified Voice of the Internet Economy", the group formed in reaction to the attempted passage of SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA, out of concern that such legislation was harmful to the business models of the companies involved.
Unlike FWD.us, which focuses almost exclusively on immigration reform, the Internet Association now spends its time on a variety of issues, including immigration, cybersecurity, and privacy. In late April, it came out in opposition to a proposal that would force companies to comply with court-approved wiretaps or face steep fines, calling it "dead on arrival." More recently, its ranks have been joined by the social media powerhouse Reddit, which itself made waves last year when it hosted an "Ask Me Anything" interview with President Obama.
In the past few years, internet companies have become increasingly in the political process. While there have been some misteps along the way, most notably the furor over Zuckerberg's immigration reform advocacy, the industry has become increasingly sophisticated in influencing Congress. While internet companies like to portray themselves as unconventional and thinking outside the box, they appear to have concluded that if you want to have a say in Washington, inside the box — or more correctly, the Beltway — is where you have to be.