WASHINGTON — It's loud and cramped on the second-floor balcony of a bustling pizza place in D.C.'s Penn Quarter. You can barely hear Reddit's animated, gesticulating co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, over the sound of a sea of patrons dining below; through the din, it's almost as if he's mouthing his words. And you can barely even see the party's host, Michael Beckerman, the low-key former Republican staffer standing with his hands clasped and head bowed — a powerful new industry's new man in the capital.
"You're all living in a district that has tremendous influence in people's lives," Ohanian reminds the 30-odd partygoers in attendance. "It might not necessarily be you with the influence, but you could be sitting next to that person, and that means you all have a great responsibility."
He talks about traveling across the country and meeting young entrepreneurs. He talks about "meeting students who feel very personally about why the internet is so important." He asks — in fact, "all" he asks — is that we "give a damn." It's an idealistic speech and one Ohanian has practiced a lot; he motions for the crowd to come closer, but they don't budge. The crowd, comprising mainly internet activists and lobbyists, has heard it before.
What's new is that Ohanian and his allies atop even larger tech companies have begun to play the traditional Washington game of lobbying — buying and wheedling influence, playing both sides. That's Beckerman's job: He is the president and CEO of the Internet Association, the one-year-old lobbying organization for internet companies. The gathering, a book party sponsored by the Association for Ohanian's memoir-cum-entrepreurial-guidebook, Without Their Permission, is the latest in a series of cooperations between the two men. On the surface, the two are an unlikely pair — Ohanian the untucked, ruffle-haired Oscar to Beckerman's suit-clad, well-coiffed Felix — but nonetheless, here they are, together: the politician and his fixer, the career outsider and the consummate insider.
Formed in late 2012, with the backing of companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and eBay, the Internet Association is the internet's unified — and severely belated — attempt to create a powerful trade and lobbying organization to distribute money and levy influence in Washington, much like TechNet, which formed in the late 1990s to represent technology issues in Congress. As long as there have been tech superpowers, there has been tech lobbying. But the new generation of tech companies — internet companies — has been somewhat averse to organizing. They see themselves as "disruptors," not players.
The Internet Association's foundation was laid in the wake of the attempted passages of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), which resulted in a massive but disorganized lobbying effort by America's largest tech companies — and which mobilized Ohanian, then an otherwise occupied venture capitalist, as an activist.
Beckerman has the standard lobbyist résumé. He's a 12-plus-year veteran of Capitol Hill and a former senior staffer for both Republican congressman Fred Upton and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "I was on the Hill for PIPA and SOPA, and it became incredibly clear then that any wrong policy decision by the federal government could take all the work we've done to make the U.S. the center of innovation and end it just like that," he said in an interview.
Unlike Ohanian, whose caffeinated, bordering-on-goofy demeanor mimics that of a politician crossed with an idealistic undergraduate, Beckerman is a quiet professional with a business card and firm handshake always at the ready. He wears a fitted suit, but without a tie. Sitting with Beckerman last month in BuzzFeed's offices, he carefully straddled the line between Washington maneuverer and internet executive. He deftly sidestepped questions like a seasoned Hill staffer while making sure to distance himself just enough from his roots by touting the Association's "outside-the-Beltway approach" to lobbying.
"I've always viewed Michael as a fixer, if that makes sense," one former committee colleague told BuzzFeed. "There seems to be a sense in Silicon Valley that people are more idealistic and attack problems with broad brushstrokes, and that's not Michael. He sees a problem and likes to tackle it as efficiently as possible."
When I first met Beckerman, on the "Internet 2012" bus tour with Ohanian, he had just left his job at the Energy and Commerce committee, where, according to the 2010 Insider's Guide to Key Committee Staff, he was "helping the panel's Republican members implement their legislative policy agenda, with considerable emphasis on preventing the EPA from imposing greenhouse gas regulations." Around the time Beckerman moved to the committee, Ohanian's TED talk about how the "lesson of Mister Splashy Pants," a Reddit meme, "is a shoo-in classic for meme-makers and marketers in the Facebook age," was going viral.
For the last year, this contrast has been mostly irrelevant. Both men have been making similar cases, just in different styles and using different Rolodexes. But in 2014, this will change. The Internet Association is about to start raising, and spending, money.
And the group represents a commitment to a deep change in the way tech companies conduct themselves — and are perceived. They have acted primarily as progressive political forces, fighting and responding for issues around privacy and online freedom; they haven't been seen in Washington fighting for tax breaks, preferential labor law, or other typical corporate demands.
The rise of the Internet Association represents the end of an era in which internet companies' public political participation has been elective and limited mostly to social causes. The Internet Assocation's role will most likely shift from message-bearer to money-router.
A recent FEC filing shows that, to date, it's raised just $25,000 — donations from Rackspace executives, one of the Association's member companies, and from Facebook's own PAC. That number will rise significantly, however, in the months leading up to the midterm elections — at least, that's the plan.
Previews of tech's political-moral crisis abound: Last month, it was reported that Google — now the company with the country's eighth largest lobbying budget — gave an undisclosed donation to Heritage Action, a conservative group that was, in part, responsible for orchestrating the recent government shutdown. Its CEO, in response to July's Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage, issued the following statement: "Marriage between a man and a woman matters for children, civil society and limited government and we encourage all citizens and their elected officials to stand up for it." Previously, Google has described Proposition 8 as "chilling and discriminatory," saying in a public statement that "we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality."
A look at Google's political contribution policies indicates that the company has considered these tensions and has given itself ample room to maneuver:
We base our giving decisions on a number of factors, most importantly, the policy stances of individual candidates. Other factors we consider include:
* demonstrating a commitment to an open Internet
* serving as congressional leaders
* serving on committees that work on legislation that is important to Google and our users
* serving in states and congressional districts where Google has operations and employees.
Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg's political lobbying group, FWD.us, dedicated to the cause of immigration reform, elements of which would make hiring foreign applicants easier for tech companies, came under scrutiny for funneling donations to an organization that ran ads in support of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. This unabashed attempt to court moderate and conservative politicians was classic Beltway politics. For tech insiders, however, it was jarring.
In a column earlier this year, startup founder Josh Miller expressed frustration with FWD.us' lobbying tactics:
Supporters of this lobbying technique defend it by saying, "It's the way Washington works." But given that Mark Zuckerberg and the other technology pioneers who are behind FWD.us have risen to prominence by spearheading disruptive innovations, reverting to such traditional lobbying tactics seems like a missed opportunity for meaningful change. Technology companies live and die by how innovative their products are, our organizing and lobbying tactics should be no different.
Beckerman seems confident that they will be. "The internet and the Silicon Valley approach is different than the D.C. lobbying approach," Beckerman said. "We've made sure to go about this from day one. We're representing the most innovative companies in the world and not going to do things the same way, say, the Sand and Gravel Association is doing them. We've put a lot of focus not just on D.C. but on internet users and on the the towns that lawmakers are from. It's more about showing how the internet impacts daily life than anything else."
But the Internet Association is an all-purpose tech lobbying machine, so its conflicts have the potential to be both larger and more complicated than FWD.us'. Now, through Ohanian and others, it benefits from vague public support from people who don't want oblivious or conflicted representatives to pass legislation that will either make their internet worse or more expensive. But even if you discount FWD.us-style influence buying, it's hard to imagine Reddit users, for example, rallying with SOPA-like fury behind wonky issues like government procurement.
At the party after Ohanian's speech, evidence of a divide was subtle but present. Leading lobbyists from Google, Twitter, and Facebook all popped in but didn't stay long. A representative from the Retail Federation asked for a signed copy of Ohanian's book, as did one suit-clad attendee who seemed excited to see Ohanian's speech and introduced himself as "an offshore energy guy."
Previously, BuzzFeed asked Beckerman about the seemingly inevitable tension that the Association would face once it started wielding its power. He seemed to agree that some sort of conflict was inevitable, but suggested that the issue was overblown — an optics or PR problem, but not a big one. While some politicians whom tech companies had allied with on social issues are "terrible," he said, on business, tax, and regulatory issues, the issue was less scandalous than obvious: Google, Apple, and Facebook are some of the largest companies in the world. Their political identities and relationships will be — and in fact already are — complicated.
In a call a few days after the party, Beckerman addressed the oft-speculated issue of Ohanian someday running for office. "I think it'd be great, and I think it's probably going to happen. I think it's just a matter of time before Alexis' generation and other founders with this understanding of the internet will run. I think Alexis has an incredibly important voice in all this. Not just for himself, but for others like him," he said.
After his speech, BuzzFeed asked Ohanian if he thought the Internet Association had made a difference in its first year. "This might be a cop-out, but it's too hard to tell," he said, citing a "dysfunctional" Congress. When asked if he was worried that its priorities might diverge from his — if, perhaps, his tireless support and partnership may someday put him, the face of the movement, in a difficult position, he was unsure. "I don't have an answer for you," he hedged, "but I'm expecting there to at some point be a crossroads."
"That's not me spiting businesses," he said, carefully. "I'm a business man, I invest in businesses. It's pointing out the fact that the best interests of businesses don't always represent the best interest of people. And I'm a fan of people more than I am a fan of businesses."
The party was winding down, and extra copies of Ohanian's book were being loaded back into boxes for the next leg of his four-month book tour. "It's a low-visibility operation right now," one partygoer from the telecom industry said of the Association's impact so far in Beltway politics. "A lot of the big tech lobbyists came tonight and left early." Lobbyists from Facebook and Twitter showed up in the waning minutes of the party as well; their presence was noted, and they left.
He surveyed the crowd. "All that's left is the techno-utopians," he said, "which only gets you so far."