Tue, Apr 02, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Technology titans enter politics

As Facebook and Google begin to form powerful lobbying groups, critics warn that their values are very different from those of millions of ordinary Americans

By Paul Harris  /  The Observer, NEW YORK

To many, those sort of beliefs in the very young, very rich and very powerful minds of Silicon Valley could be a dangerous mix.

“The youth is there in Silicon Valley culture and the hubris is pretty high too,” said Paul Argenti, a communications professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, New Hampshire.

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. That might or might not be good policy, but as a values system, it is no vision of egalitarianism of the sort that the US was founded upon. It is replacing the huddled masses yearning to be free with not-so-huddled elites bearing doctorates.

That might suit the belief system of technology start-up people, but less so union members, the working class or the millions of Americans still struggling with high levels of joblessness.

“By attaching himself personally to this sort of issue, Mark Zuckerberg is young, arrogant and naive,” Argenti said.

The way the sector is seeking to wield power politically is anything but naive, and actually old school. Technology 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 technology; the sector has grown each year since 2009, signing up more big-name firms and pouring in millions more dollars.

Google, the top company in the sector, has hired former top politicians — such as former US representatives Richard Gephardt and Susan Molinari — to fight for its interests.

Facebook has lobbied on bills about privacy, seeking to protect its business model of exploiting its users’ content and data as a way of marketing to advertisers. It has a former congressman onboard as well, in the shape of former US representative John Shadegg.

Top technology executives have also wooed politicians at the highest level. Zuckerberg and Google chief executive Eric Schmidt were two of the dozen technology titans who attended a private dinner with US President Barack Obama in 2011.

In one of his State of the Union addresses, Obama called out Facebook and Google by name as the natural heirs to the great industrial innovators of the US’ past.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has just published a book aimed at creating a social movement of women in the office. She too spans the private and public sectors, having worked as a top official at the US Treasury.

Her contacts book no doubt still contains a host of powerful government officials on speed-dial.

Observers say this is a tried and tested model of any major industry.

“They are singing from the same playbook as everybody else and this is big money. You will find that rarely does a big corporation spend big money except to protect its own commercial concerns,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that seeks to monitor the power of money in US politics.

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