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Q&A with Adobe's Jace Johnson

Apr 15, 2024
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With roots on Capitol Hill as a former chief of staff for Sen. Orrin Hatch, Adobe's Jace Johnson has tracked Washington tech debates for years.

Fast forward to today's AI-focused policy talk, and Johnson still finds himself in the middle of the conversation. Axios caught up with Adobe's vice president of government affairs and public policy over lunch at Le Clou.

  • They discussed what people get wrong about lobbyists, whether AI legislation will pass this year and if the "techlash" is still happening.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What's changed since you first started working in tech in 2010?

[Tech companies] knew they had to be in Washington; they did not know why.

  • Executives would look at you and say "I don't understand why we care. We can do whatever we want in this world."
  • It was that way until around 2012 or so, with the [Edward Snowden] revelations being a real inflection point.

Did the "techlash" against social media companies like Meta and Google end up hurting enterprise companies like yours, and how did Adobe deal with that?

It cast suspicion on us. I wouldn't say guilt by association was immediate; we just had to be accountable in ways we hadn't before. There was scrutiny, because of things [other companies] did.

  • If you're a smart lobbyist, what you'll realize is, if someone wants to talk to you for a good or bad reason, you'll take it as a reason. [Lawmakers] wanted to talk to [me] for a bad reason, but I wanted the opportunity to get to know them. I didn't care that the reason was negative.
  • Now, government officials don't engage with companies as much as they used to. It used to be that companies were a critical source of information, and now they're just one of many.

What has Adobe's engagement with the government been like on AI policy?

When we saw the White House voluntary AI commitments come out, we told them "We love it, but we think we can do better." They were open to the idea that there was more to do there.

  • When we saw the executive order come out, it had a ton of stuff we were not just championing but we thought was important to be in there.

Adobe has been working on image provenance and watermarking as part of the AI conversation for a while. Were you surprised to see the topic explode in Washington?

We were working day and night to make it a thing, to the chagrin of people who actually thought AI might get into consumer hands without government ever noticing.

  • We were in offices around the Capitol, saying you need to pay attention to this.

How are you assessing the chances of thoughtful AI legislation passing anytime soon?

If it weren't an election year, I think we'd get some AI bills done. I think getting new things done in an election year … you're increasing the level of difficulty. Maybe something around elections this year, but I'm skeptical.

  • But I do think generally there are enough good bills and enough awful things going on that they'll get to something next year.

What do people get wrong about lobbyists?

You have a constitutionally protected right to petition the government. You have a right to an attorney when you're taken to court. And you have a right to a lobbyist.

  • And what people don't understand is that everybody has lobbyists, from colleges to cotton growers to nurse anesthetists.
  • Everyone would hire a lawyer if they went to court. If you're going to go to Capitol Hill, you're going to hire a professional.
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