In 2013, the 10 biggest tech companies upped their spending on lobbying by 16 percent over the previous year. Companies like Amazon, Google and IBM spent far more than most pharmaceutical firms, the National Rifle Association, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, and others that we tend to associate with trying to control the conversation in Washington DC. And just like these other lobbiers, tech megacorps are casting a lot of their money toward causes that increase social and economic inequality, like pushing for cheaper labor and tax breaks for the richest of the rich.
To achieve these goals, tech corporations have begun embracing a strategy that is widely known as "astroturfing": Lobbying in a sneaky, roundabout fashion, by setting up their own faux-grassroots organizations. Executives at tech's largest companies, like Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft spend millions on lobbying indirectly through nonprofit groups that promote a grassroots image, but are in reality the tentacles of corporate interests that are just trying to forward their own agendas.
"You see groups all the time that clearly aren't grassroots by what a normal person would assume is grassroots," says Robert Maguire, political nonprofits investigator at the Center for Responsive Politics. But tech companies are recent adopters of the strategy as a public relations tool, and their influence is growing.
These organizations might not have been created by and for the masses, but they're looking to recruit support from everyday people and the government. Below, a roster of some of Silicon Valley's key astroturfers:
FWD.us: Militarizing Borders and Slashing Wages
FWD.us was founded in April 2013 by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, along with additional donor supporters in the tech industry, including early employees of Dropbox, LinkedIn and Microsoft, plus others from large media and venture capital outfits.
FWD.us doesn't go out of its way to hide the fact that its controlling members are tech industry billionaires, but you could easily be fooled by its current focus of "building a grassroots movement" of ordinary citizens like you and me to pass immigration reform.
That sounds benign enough, until you learn more about the type of reform FWD.us is pushing for. The group favors a certain type of immigrant: highly-skilled, foreign tech workers who would be cheaper to hire than their American counterparts. Net effect: lower wages for everyone.
Before directing its focus on immigration reform, the group had made the mistake of campaigning for the Keystone XL pipeline, which turned out to be somewhat unpopular among many of FWD.us' richest members. With Facebook's Zuckerberg as the group's most visible leader, progressive organizations like MoveOn.org and the Sierra Club pulled their ads on the social network in protest when FWD.us ran Keystone XL-supportive ads in 2013, and activists from 350.org protested outside Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters. FWD.us soon lost some of its more progressive tech backers, like Elon Musk of the electric car producer Tesla Motors.
As a 501(c)(4), a tax designation for groups that proclaim, rightly or wrongly, that "social welfare" advocacy is their primary function, FWD.us doesn't have to officially disclose a whole lot of its financial information. According to the lobbying disclosures site Open Secrets (a project of Maguire's Center for Responsive Politics), FWD.us reported spending $600,000 on national lobbying efforts in 2013, mostly related to immigration reform.
Labor rights groups have called the H-1B work visa program, which FWD.us is pushing to expand, "indentured servitude."
However, Zuckerberg told Congresspeople in a closed-door meeting in October 2013 that FWD.us had raised $50 million to unleash an advertising blitz to promote its conservative immigration reform agenda, including paying for ads to support political candidates who get behind their reforms, regardless of those candidates' other political views.
A famous example is when FWD.us's subgroup Americans for a Conservative Direction bought ads on rightwing talk radio shows like Rush Limbaugh's in 2013, ads that called for increased government vigilance on the Mexico-US border. In the radio spots, a white-bread female voice expresses jingoistic concern:
Our border is unsecure, our laws are unenforced. We don't know who's here, what they're doing or even why.
The voice actor name-drops conservative politicians like Marco Rubio, who received more ad dollars from FWD.us than any other Congressperson, and then goes on to call for increasing the over-10 billion dollars that the US already spends on border control annually.
It all starts with real border security: more fencing, more manpower and high-tech surveillance.
Labor rights groups have called the H-1B work visa program, which FWD.us is pushing to expand, "indentured servitude." Here's why: Under the program, foreign workers can get stuck working for low wages because their residency is dependent upon them having a job. If they're not working, they could get kicked out of the country. Eventually, this brings down salaries for everyone, no matter where you were born.
More problems with this maneuver for cheaper labor: It creates a "brain drain" in the poorer countries foreign workers come from, as more highly-skilled workers leave poorer countries behind, and it further entrenches the stereotype of the "good" immigrant vs. the "bad" immigrant who has fewer exploitable skills.
Writer and activist Yasmin Nair isn't surprised that the US' "most charitable" human being, Mark Zuckerberg, "should be involved with this campaign as well as pushing for more H1-B visas." According to Nair, who has long engaged with and critiqued the mainstream immigration reform movement, FWD.us' strategy is "entirely compatible with a neoliberal framework where the primary purpose is to extract labor in the most efficient ways while exercising a zealously xenophobic agenda," to the detriment of anyone concerned about fair labor practices.
Peers: Unfair Shares
"Legalize sharing," urge press releases issued by Peers, another tech astroturfing outfit launched in 2013. Peers is the "grassroots" organization launched by "sharing economy" companies like the transportation app Lyft and the home subletting site Airbnb, the latter of which paid a PR group to create Peers.
For the uninitiated, the "sharing economy" was conceived when internet companies realized they could make billions by creating systems that enable a user to offer a service, like a ride in their car (in the case of Lyft), or a stay in their apartment (in the case of Airbnb), to another user, and then charge a fee for connecting the two of them.
With recent revelations about tech corporations getting paid to aid in government spying as well as a wage-fixing scandal involving Apple, Comcast, Genentech, Google, Intel, and Paypal, the tech industry's reputation isn't at a high point, internationally.
Peers has done a great job of enlisting citizen members (by its own count amassing 250,000 of them in its first six months) to speak out against governmental regulation of companies that, as with Lyft, have a poor record on accessibility for disabled people, and in Airbnb's case, have increased the cost of living in places like New York City and San Francisco, as property managers take available apartments off the market, instead renting them like hotel rooms. That has made housing less affordable to locals. Meanwhile, Airbnb's current valuation is $10 billion.
Christiane Hayashi is director of Taxis & Accessible Services for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Hayashi says that services like Lyft "have most pointedly not been communicating with local regulators." Instead, "They just generally come into a jurisdiction, and they get cease-and-desist orders from regulators that they ignore, and then they beat a trail to city hall to get the rules changed." Companies such as Lyft have decreased the number of accessible vehicles on the road, leaving disabled people with fewer transportation options even as "sharing" corporations bring in record profits.
sf.citi: Bandage for Tech's Tarnished Image
With recent revelations about tech corporations getting paid to aid in government spying as well as a wage-fixing scandal involving Apple, Comcast, Genentech, Google, Intel, and Paypal, the tech industry's reputation isn't at a high point, internationally. But their situation is even more dire in the Bay Area, where many of the companies maintain headquarters. There, they're in large part responsible for an affordability crisis that has pushed thousands of lower-income people to the furthest edges of the region, particularly people of color. Even nearby Oakland is reeling, with a 25-percent drop in its black population in the past decade.
Enter sf.citi. Founded in 2012 "to leverage the power of the technology community around civic action in San Francisco," the group was formed in response to local backlash against the tech industry-fueled displacement of entire communities. An acronym for the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation, sf.citi is only a "citizens" organization in the sense that the wealthy tech industrialists who primarily lead it happen to live in San Francisco.
Basically a local pro-tech public relations group, it has recently aligned itself with a San Francisco homeless services nonprofit, Project Homeless Connect. The web site for sf.citi's proudly proclaims that it has raised $50,000 for that cause since March 2013. But $50K is peanuts compared to the tens of millions of dollars the industry will save thanks to sf.citi's successful lobbying for local tax reform passed in 2012 that specifically benefits tech companies. The 2013 IRS forms for sf.citi show that it spent $160,000 total on philanthropy, or $40,000 less than it spent on lobbying SF's mayor and other local politicians.
More recently, it's come out against the blockades of the much-maligned tech shuttle buses that move tech workers between San Francisco and lower Silicon Valley, which have become a symbol for gentrification, dismissing the activists as "divisive."
SPUR: More Expensive Condos for High-Paid Tech Workers!
Upon sf.citi's founding, it announced a partnership with SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, which bills itself as "a member-supported nonprofit organization" though much of its funding comes from local Bay Area real estate developers like the Lennar Corporation, banks like Wells Fargo, and tech interests like the Zuckerberg-funded Silicon Valley Community Foundation and tech giant Cisco Systems. SPUR and its head, Gabriel Metcalf, maintain a "build or die" approach to the housing crisis that has affected the Bay Area since the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s.
"We are at the point in the cycle where the antigrowth backlash has kicked in," Metcalf told the San Francisco Business Times as early as the summer of 2013. He and people like him have a name for those who question the "build, build, build" approach: resistant-to-change NIMBYs (short for Not In My BackYarders). But it's a false label: It's not just any change that housing activists are worried about. Instead, their concern is preserving the economic diversity of the city.
Ted Gullickson, with the SF Tenants' Union, says that given just how bad the displacement problem is in SF, "100 percent" of new development ought to be affordable and not market-rate.
Creating more market-rate housing would certainly benefit the wealthy people who could afford those houses, and it would absolutely benefit the developers that fund SPUR. But adding market-rate housing stock would attract even more high-income workers (like those in tech) to San Francisco. And more rich people in San Francisco will mean more people who want rich people shops and restaurants and things - and that eventually raises the cost of living for everyone.
So much for the trickle-down theory: As the transformation of recently gentrified neighborhoods like the Mission District and SoMa shows, soon it's primarily the high-end barber shops and artisan cheese carts and those who can afford them that are left.
If we're really going to take on inequality, Ted Gullickson, with the SF Tenants' Union, says that given just how bad the displacement problem is in SF, "100 percent" of new development ought to be affordable and not market-rate. It's a radical thought, but then these are desperate times for low- and middle-income San Franciscans.
Ron Conway: "The Godfather"
All of these organizations have one common link: venture capitalist Ron Conway. Conway's invested in Peers member companies like Airbnb and the online course web site Skillshare, and he's a founding member of FWD.us and sf.citi, whose Affordable Housing Committee is headed up by none other than SPUR's Gabriel Metcalf.
With a mug like Saint Nicholas' after a good shave, Conway gifted current San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee with his single largest campaign contribution of well over $100,000. He even donated the rooftop deck of his $9.5 million penthouse as the set for the production of a pro-Lee campaign web video starring MC Hammer, will.i.am, Twitter founder Biz Stone, and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer. With Conway's help, the Lee campaign outspent the more progressive second-place candidate 4-to-1.
Since then, Conway and Lee hang frequently - as when the above-mentioned, tech-fatigued, anti-gentrification activists blockaded Google buses in December 2013. Days later, Lee held an invite-only meeting with Conway and other tech honchos to figure out how to address the anti-tech hate (Conway's sf.citi ramped up its PR offensive, for one). A 2011 Business Insider profile on Conway noted that:
Conway is so powerful and so feared . . . that almost no one we spoke to about him was willing to go on the record. Most people we spoke to were scared that Conway would retaliate against them - and ruin them. One person observed that Conway isn't called "The Godfather" for nothing.
In the past couple years, Conway has begun spending his resources beyond Silicon Valley, donating to tech-friendly politicians across the country, from Democratic New York mayor Bill DeBlasio to Orange County Republican Congressman Darrell Issa.
As the Center for Responsive Politics' Maguire observes, "There is a lot of complexity, a lot of confusion surrounding what is reported to whom, when, and there is a lot of money that goes unreported around the country."
Conway and many in tech are moving beyond hardware and software to influence our world in ways that are anything but virtual. Given that three of these groups were formed in just the past two years, it's easy to imagine this roster of astroturfers growing. The hard part will be keeping track.