Jan 14, 2021 - Technology

The fractured tech lobby's uphill battles

Illustration of a bandaged hand cursor

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Silicon Valley's leading lobby, the Internet Association, is struggling to manage the competing interests of the companies it represents just as the industry faces a tide of bipartisan anger.

Why it matters: Tech will fight policy battles around antitrust, content moderation and privacy without a unified industry voice.

Where it stands: Major tech firms have drawn attention in recent days for pressing pause on political donations in the wake of last week's deadly attack on the Capitol.

  • But lobbying, the other major path for currying favor in Washington, hasn't been working for tech for a while.

Tech's biggest problem: Too many firms working at cross purposes.

  • The Internet Association was founded almost a decade ago to be Silicon Valley's voice in Washington.
  • But now its biggest members — companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon — increasingly bump heads as they each seek to channel policymakers' fury away from themselves, and they can have wildly different goals from smaller members.
  • Facebook, for instance, has signaled that it's open to new federal laws introducing privacy regulations and modest updates to Section 230, tech's liability shield. Smaller companies worry giants could handle the burden of complying while they'd struggle to survive.

What they're saying: "A trade association can only do what its members tell it to do," one person familiar with IA's work told Axios. "Facebook begging to be regulated puts the smaller companies in a bad position. It makes it hard for any organization that contains those two constituencies to be effective."

Meanwhile: IA faces several challenges specific to the organization:

  • A leadership vacuum it may only now be emerging from. It just named a new president and CEO this week, Dane Snowden, formerly the COO of NCTA, a cable lobbying group, after losing former president Michael Beckerman to TikTok a year ago. IA's top lobbyist, Michael Bloom, also went to TikTok.
  • Insufficient funds. Despite its members' deep pockets, it has a lot less money to throw around than groups repping comparably moneyed industries. In 2019, for instance, it took in more than $9 million in membership dues — a fraction of the $63 million in dues that NCTA collected that year.
  • Disengaged members. Unlike wireless or cable lobbying groups, IA has a board that’s mostly composed of government relations leads, not company leaders. That lack of engagement from tech’s C-suite is felt on the Hill. "You don’t actually feel like they have the weight of the companies behind them," one Hill aide told Axios. "They’re a mouthpiece, but if you actually want to do something you call up the companies directly."

The other side: "The Internet Association is an organization in transition, but despite the headwinds we faced in 2020, we have continued to evolve," including by retaining and recruiting subject-matter experts, said Jon Berroya, IA's interim CEO.

  • "Bringing in Dane as IA’s new CEO presents a natural opportunity for us to take a fresh approach," he said.

Where it stands: The group still lobbies and testifies on behalf of its members. But tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook are now mostly expected to show up to congressional hearings themselves, not send a representative from a trade group.

  • And IA does not work on antitrust. That blunts its effectiveness, and large companies fiercely advocate on their own behalf, often moving the policy conversation company-by-company, one tech industry leader told Axios.

IA isn't the only game in town. There's a raft of other tech lobbying groups, ranging from BSA, whose members are commercial software vendors, to the Consumer Technology Association, which reps consumer electronics makers (and which also puts on CES each year, now underway).

Yes, but: That leaves the various other groups focusing only on the relatively narrow interests of their slice of the industry. That's putting all of Silicon Valley in a tight spot as bipartisan anger against tech bears down indiscriminately.

  • "The tech industry has said it likes having a hall of mirrors and picking where to go with what issue," one former industry executive said. "That was fine pre-techlash. It's not now."
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