Mar 22, 2021 - Technology

Big Tech taps libertarian lifeline in D.C.

Illustration of the Statue of Liberty holding an arrow cursor instead of a torch.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech companies bracing for increased scrutiny in Washington are leaning on their last friends in town — the libertarians.

Why it matters: Progressive liberals and populist conservatives alike are ramping up their attacks on the tech industry. So the once-beloved darlings of Silicon Valley are scrambling to gain traction on Capitol Hill with the dwindling ranks of Republicans who still believe in laissez-faire, even for the tech industry.

What's happening: Major tech companies have added prominent conservatives from the free-market world to their D.C. rosters in recent months.

  • Jesse Blumenthal is joining Apple after leading technology and innovation at Stand Together, an organization founded by Charles Koch.
  • Billy Easley, a senior policy analyst for the Koch-linked Americans for Prosperity who also worked on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, recently was hired by Reddit.
  • Mattie Duppler, an alum of the National Taxpayers Union and Americans for Tax Reform, joined Amazon last year.
  • Facebook and Google also have relied on veterans of free-market circles. Google hired Max Pappas, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2017, while Facebook tapped former R Street Institute outreach director Lori Moylan the same year.

Yes, but: The tech companies are also eager to hire Democrats as they seek to position themselves for the new administration and congressional majorities.

The big picture: The D.C. breed of libertarian who is against government intervention or regulation is fading fast among those in power in the Republican Party.

  • "I think you're seeing in part with the post-Trump right, a drifting away from the alliance with big business," said Zach Graves, head of public policy for the Lincoln Network, a conservative-leaning group focused on tech.
  • A survey on a "winning message" from the National Republican Senatorial Committee found that 87% of Republicans agreed that Big Tech has too much power over their platforms, and 89% agreed that social media companies should be liable under the same laws as newspapers for false information published on their platforms.

Flashback: The tech industry has a strong libertarian streak in general, with some in Silicon Valley priding themselves on their independent-minded views.

  • In D.C., tech has largely aligned with Democrats over the past decade. But with the tech-lash, free-market types are more natural allies given their opposition to regulation or government intervention.

Between the lines: The number of lawmakers — on either side of the aisle — who believe nothing should be done to regulate tech companies is dwindling, so the companies have their work cut out for them.

  • The lobbying strategy of sharing talking points with like-minded groups, who then author op-eds or blogs for company lobbyists to in turn share with lawmakers and staff as proof of support, isn't effective in this environment.
  • "The approach that tech companies have relied on for years — the justification for internet exceptionalism — is not influencing people on the Hill anymore," said Rachel Bovard, a former Senate aide now with the Conservative Partnership Institute.
  • "What they’ve suggested has been belied by actual events. I think lawmakers are increasingly dubious of what’s being told to them from these groups."
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