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Should Tech Be Involved With Political Lobbying?

­­­­To Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and Big Banking, you can now add Big Tech.

                                                                                       Paul Harris, Guardian

Tech now influences our lives at every corner. The kids of the dot com days are now the megastars of the Forbes Rich List. And with all this money comes power and influence. And politics is the perfect arena to wield this combination. But is it right?

Politics & Tech Going FWD

Outside of his tweaking of Facebook, the biggest news surrounding Mark Zuckerberg is the formation of FWD.us, a new a political advocacy group (PAC), founded and funded by the leaders of Silicon Valley (including Dropbox, Sean Parker of Napster fame and Bill Gates). Its aims? To lobby for immigration reform, to reduce skills shortages in tech companies, to improve education, and to generally help innovation. In an Op-Ed he wrote for the Washington Post announcing the PAC’s objectives, he claimed the US has “a strange immigration policy for a nation of immigrants.”

In the months leading up to FWD.Us’ formation, Zuckerberg hosted a fundraiser that collected an estimated $50 Million, and though the PAC’s major donors are listed on the site, it’s 501(c)(4) status (AKA Stealth PAC) means it doesn’t have to list them, and can accept any amount of money.

So few people actually know how much money is involved, but it’s probably a lot. When I wrote about tech companies funding Romney & Obama, the numbers were staggering. OpenSecrets puts the US figure at well over $200 million in the last few years, and it will likely surge by the time of the next election.

But despite the group being less than a few months’ old, it’s already mired itself in controversy. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, and Yammer founder David Sacks left the group, after the group was found to be sponsoring ads for the Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling. “I agreed to support Fwd.us because there is a genuine need to reform immigration. However, this should not be done at the expense of other important causes,” Musk said in a statement to AllThingsD.

The backlash has been pretty furious, lamenting its failure to be different, it’s joining in of back-scratching and perceived Zuckerberg-based self-serving and general lack of vision. What promised to do things differently very quickly devolved into same old story, same old politics, and that’s a shame.

Taking sides

So while FWD.Us might be stalling, the immigration chatter is still ploughing on. But it seems their goals were already achieved. When talking about amendments to the immigration bill Senator Orrin Hatch basically said the tech sector already had all the power and influence they need, warning, "There's a whole high-tech world that's getting up in arms if we don't do this right, and they alone can make this bill very difficult to pass." On top of this is the conflict about the SOPA bill, and CISPA too.

Not that any of this is new. There are plenty of tech lobbying groups, well known friends & enemies of tech, both on the left and right, and just as many individuals lobbying them for their own interests, on both sides of the pond. That’s not the point. The point is, tech is meant to be different, it’s not meant to have the same shady practices and poor reputation like big oil companies or pharmaceutical giants.

Stalling On "Don't be evil"

Now that tech is starting to wield influence equal to the like of energy and finance, it’s more responsible for its actions now than ever. But despite this, Google’s classic motto of “Don’t Be Evil” seems to be a fading dream, for the whole of tech. Tax dodgers, patent fights, piracy complaints; almost all the major companies have been falling foul of governments both in the US and further afield, despite governments looking to create as many Silicon Valley clones as possible to help promote growth in sluggish economies.

Avoiding the arguments over immigration, tax-dodging, piracy issues and all the rest,  the question remains; Should Tech as an industry really be getting into the nitty gritty of politics at all?

While funding has been flowing from tech companies for years, this is the closest the two have been together. Paul Harris wrote in the Guardian that many feel the sense of power in “the very young, very rich and very powerful minds of Silicon Valley could be a dangerous mix.” They could be right.

Mark Zuckerberg and his counterparts in all the other Silicon Valley giants are perfectly allowed to voice their opinions and spend their money how they like, but involving their companies in the shady world of politics brings down the reputation of their industry, and the furore over Fwd.Us is the perfect example. 

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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