Commentary Center: Twitter takes a seat at the Washington lobbying table
Illustration by: Dayton artist Elliot Ward
On Aug. 9, Twitter became the latest Internet/tech company to form a Political Action Committee (PAC), complete with a lobbyist and a Washington, D.C., office. Called Twitter#PAC, it joins companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft, whose PACs have made serious efforts to seek influence in U.S. politics. Twitter, like the other companies, wants to have more access to members of Congress concerning Internet issues and policymaking. With the 2014 upcoming midterm elections in Congress and the 2016 presidential election cycle pending, Twitter and other Internet companies will be throwing money into the political system with hopes of having more influence on legislation affecting their interests. Microsoft, Google and Facebook have already given generously to the Democratic and Republican parties since 2012.
Forming a PAC is a big transformation for these companies, especially Facebook, Google and Twitter. For years they were mostly viewed as just websites people visited to find information and update personal profiles. Now, with the development of their PACs, it is difficult to ignore the fact they are huge companies, not unlike Walmart, BP or Boeing. They have morphed from pages on a computer screen into tangible enterprises intent on shaping Internet policies.
As for those policies, Twitter spokesperson John Prosser said, “We expect to continue to play an active role in speaking up on issues related to Internet freedom, government access to user data, patent reform and freedom of expression.” These align closely with the other tech companies’ desires as well. Twitter has even joined Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Apple to petition the government to allow for more transparency and disclosure regarding the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs that raised eyebrows back in June. So even though these companies have their own business interests to look after, they claim protecting their users is a priority as well.
The NSA scandal, however, managed to become a public relations problem for these companies. Reports mostly exclude Twitter from the PRISM data-gathering revelations, but they dealt with issues of privacy back in 2010 when the Federal Trade Commission discovered a hacker gained access to Twitter users’ passwords. As for PRISM, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other tech companies have been accused of enabling the NSA in their data harvesting business, but under law they cannot reveal information about the requests. Reports say this is one reason for their petition for more disclosure about surveillance programs. These companies have since denied their roles in giving the government access to servers.
The power and influence wielded by these Internet companies have a tremendous effect on the Internet and what it will become and how it will be used, and their PACs will reinforce that power. As Internet companies, they are different from most other businesses and organizations. So much of what they control and provide affects nearly everyone in the country because so many people and businesses use and depend on the Internet. The outcomes from their lobbying influence will likely be extensive as well.
Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at AlexCulpepper@DaytonCityPaper.com
Commentary Forum Question of the Week:
Business as usual for Twitter
By Rob Scott
For businesses and organizations to prevent that from happening or even be part of the process, they need skilled counsel. To get the needs and views of businesses and organizations before government, they employ lobbyists to advocate for their position. Lobbyists are a necessity, like lawyers, who understand the legislative process and the political issues regarding a particular point of view.
Lobbyists meet with legislators and advocate for the particular position for which they are employed. Sometimes these meetings are face-to-face, phone conversations or even grassroots advocacy in the legislator’s constituency.
Additionally, there are advocacy groups that represent particular points of view for a business sector, issue, belief or group of people. Some examples of lobbyists organization is the American Medical Association, National Rifle Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Business owners, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Association of Retired People and many more.
Many view lobbying as unethical or immoral. Lobbying is often spoken of with contempt, when the implication is that people with inordinate socioeconomic power are corrupting the law in order to serve their own interests. However, lobbying ensures others’ interests are duly defended against corruption, or even simply making sure that minority interests are fairly defended.
Many times the lobbying effort can be very good, but in some situations it can be advantageous only for a particular group. One can point to the U.S. Tax Code to see the result of lobbying efforts that have run amok.
As parts of lobbying, political action committees (PACs) are created with direction of lobbyists in order donate or spend monies for or against candidates for office. The PACs receive their money from individuals, organizations and corporations. Additionally, since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, corporations have unlimited spending power in elections for or against a candidate.
Commonly, PACs contribute to politicians’ campaign funds in order to reward them for their shared views and get support for future shared endeavors. There are thousands of PACs representing many different groups, organizations, corporations and more. All of them have a purpose or a cause that they are advocating for. Many times, legislators need lobbyists in order to understand an issue better or to connect with their constituents.
Much has been made about Twitter starting a PAC in Washington, D.C. Twitter joins the ranks of Facebook, Microsoft, Google and many other tech companies in trying to wield influence amongst the corridors of the capitol.
Founded in 2006, Twitter is an incorporated company in the United States with offices in San Francisco, San Antonio, New York City and Boston. Twitter is believed to be a possible candidate for an initial public offering by the end of 2014. The company was estimated to be valued at $8.4 billion in 2011.
Twitter’s Policy Manager William Carty officially registered to lobby the government on consumer issues, foreign relations, technology and copyright. This will allow Twitter to essentially touch all facets of the legislative process and any interests the corporation may have in government.
Twitter has an interest in Internet freedom since they depend on the free flow and access to the information superhighway. Included in that interest is for those in Congress and other places of political influence to understand Twitter’s business, how certain laws and decisions affect their business, and how as a corporation they are to grow.
How the U.S. government decides to regulate the Internet – or one day even tax the Internet – can and would have a dramatic effect on Twitter and its business interest.
Twitter is an amazing creation and is one of the largest parts of the social media network that has exploded in the past five years. However, Twitter is a business. A business’ purpose is to make money for their owners and, specifically for Twitter, their venture capitalists that have provided many millions of investment dollars.
For Twitter to continue to grow and make money, a very smart business decision was made to get involved with political practices by getting their own PAC and lobbyist. Twitter needs to know what political challenges lay ahead, and even help craft the law or regulations for their industry. The company has an obligation to their users and investors to be an active participant in the political arena.
Additionally, since so many other tech companies are engaged in aggressive political efforts, Twitter had to join the ranks in order to protect their interests against the interests of others.
Twitter now has the tools to begin to influence the political process through their lobbying efforts. It is likely the issues Twitter will advocate for are in a similar vein of most business interests with possible exceptions. Follow me on Twitter @robertscott3.
Rob Scott is a practicing attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org orgemcitylaw.com.
Twitter’s interests aren’t public
Social media companies, providing what many believe is a free service, need to pool their employees’ influence. In that, they’re no different than any other business. Not only do these companies offer substantial donations to favored candidates, but some appear to dangle before legislators even more valuable gifts: Highly-paid lobbying positions after public life ends. (It is important to note that political action committees are not funded directly by a company, but rather by the employees and stockholders. PACs are an influence union, coordinating the promotion of the donors’ interests. When these connected organizations give to candidates and causes, their big-company names are attached.)
There’s no guarantee – not even an historical suggestion – that the political action committees of companies like Twitter will act altruistically; if they happen to promote the public interest, it’s coincidental. Twitter’s political action committees shouldn’t be expected to operate that way. Twitter#PAC coordinates the efforts of one, small population: its donors.
Since Facebook garnered wide public attention for its IPO in May 2012, which further amplified when Edward Snowden leaked information on the governments’ surveillance programs earlier this year, the public has become far more aware of the size and power of these media clearinghouses. People are beginning to understand the depth and significance of the information these companies store and control. These are no longer simply time-passing games or useful databases, but critical tools and omnipresent communities that hold the secrets of millions. These exchanges aren’t run out of someone’s basement, but multimillion-dollar server farms around the world. These companies are no longer run by some geeky jeans-wearing guy out of a dorm room, but out of a board room. They’re probably still wearing jeans, though.
Maybe there was a time when these companies would have gone to Washington on a charitable mission. Now, with millions, even billions, of dollars at stake, these companies must preserve and protect themselves and the Internet structures that allowed them to grow and thrive. That shouldn’t be controversial – these companies – and the employees and shareholders of the PACs – have a right and duty to protect their interests. Their political arms, however, should not be viewed with an uncritical eye.
Publicly traded firms like Facebook and Google, in particular, have the responsibility of maximizing their shareholders’ wealth, and if that means closing the door of opportunity behind them, so be it.
This type of mission drift has happened before. One recent example was during California’s 2010 Prop 19 measure that would legalize recreational marijuana. Conservative groups fighting the proposal found an unlikely ally: many of the medical marijuana dispensaries operating throughout the state. These “not-for-profit” companies were undoubtedly staffed and run by people who, 15 years prior when pot was completely illegal, would have embraced the idea of legalization. Those same people preserved their special status by disorganizing the effort, defeating the bill. Just add money, and lots of it.
Internet-age companies, including Google and Facebook, have been forced to form a K Street lobbying presence to protect their interests. The Internet is not a newborn concept anymore, but it’s still in adolescence.
Several important political battles loom on the horizon:
– Net neutrality: Should Internet service providers treat different types of data equally, or should these companies be able to throttle and control individual sites? Telecom providers, unsurprisingly, are generally in favor of control, while Internet media giants are fighting to keep the Internet “open.” If telecom providers are able to set access tiers for individual sites and services, expect a broad change in the digital media landscape.
– Data collection: Whether it’s governments performing surveillance on billions of people and organizations, or the Internet companies themselves collecting data (read the Aug. 14 Guardian article, “Google: don’t expect privacy when sending to Gmail”), the public is increasingly aware of the risks of sharing information online. What constitutes private communication? What should be protected?
– Digital infrastructure: The amount of data transferred via the Internet is increasing exponentially. Soon – if we haven’t maximized it already – we’ll reach the physical limits of what we can transfer to one another using the current fiber optic network. Like widening roads and adding new routes to fast-growing areas, we will need to spend large amounts of public money to expand and maintain the physical infrastructure for the digital realm.
The lessons of the past, including the dot-com bubble early last decade or even the fall of MySpace, still resonate with these companies: If they aren’t careful and managed properly, they may not be around for another decade. Public policy is important for these companies to influence.
Nineteenth-century women’s rights advocate Frances Willard said, “In America, ballots are bayonets.” Twitter, once a small distraction, now a media and communications powerhouse, is girding for war.
Michael Truax is a freelance writer, digital marketing consultant, entertainment enthusiast and bar trivia champion living in West Chester, Ohio. He can be reached at MichaelTruax@DaytonCityPaper.com.