Note: I've written some addtional thoughts on this topic based on some smart reader feedback.
I believe there is a massive paradigm shift occurring in American politics right now. You might be surprised to learn it's half over. The already completed half is about how technology is being utilized in politics. Donation emails, social media, and online ad networks are now crucial components of campaigns and policy initiatives across the country. These are just a few ways technology is being utilized to make public policy. This aspect of technology is enormously interesting in its own right. However, I am not going to address that today. I want to address the part of this shift that's still in its infancy: When the tech world works to make public policy.
The technology industry is descending upon Capitol Hill and statehouses across the country in force. They pushed the Federal Communications Commission on net neutrality and won big. Last week they defeated big cable companies again. They take no prisoners and don't show signs of stopping. The technology lobby (aka big tech) is one of the most formidable new advocacy groups to form in American politics.
Google ranked fifth in the amount spent on lobbying in the first quarter of 2015 among all organizations that lobbied Congress and federal agencies, according to an analysis by MapLight. The search giant spent $5,470,000; for context, that is more than four times the amount that Apple spent, and nearly $1 million more than Comcast did.
John Gruber puts it in crystal clear terms:
Looking at these numbers, what strikes me is how low these sums are. $5.5 million is almost nothing to Google. Nothing. They reported $14 billion in profit last year. That means they spent 0.04 percent of their profit on lobbying here in the U.S.
Big tech has deeper pockets than big oil and has the potential to organize more quickly and in greater numbers than big labor. They don't just have the Internet on their side. They are the Internet. And they're going to reshape politics as we know it.
The tech lobby has the knowledge and skill set to assemble a large, formidable, citizen-led campaign seemingly out of nowhere. In simple terms, big tech is rapidly learning how to harness the political power of thousands of nerds across the country. These nerds are not well versed in politics but are passionate in their defense of technological freedom. The people who built the Internet want to defend it.
Like technology itself, their issues are diverse and complex. These are few items currently on their agenda:
- Allowing municipalities to compete with big cable companies to create faster Internet service
- Breaking government sanctioned taxi cab regulatory monopolies to allow ride-sharing services
- Open, accessible, and instantly searchable campaign finance disclosure.
The tech lobby and their geeky grassroots have no respect for the status quo. They rarely ever begin as the majority but they know how to become the majority. They champion an agenda of technological freedom and know how to make it resonate. The industry deep pockets and powerful voice of their tech savvy citizenry are ready to take on politics. They don't come exclusively from the right, left or center. They borrow aspects of each while staking out a kind of societal moral high ground with innovation and technology at the forefront.
Lawmakers should be aware that the technology industry is going to become a powerful player in politics. One that is prepared to turn the political world upside down and inside out. They could be stronger than any previously significant lobbying force in our nation's history.
Technology in our culture (and by extension our law) is only going to increase over time. So far the tech lobby has pursued a strategy of convincing those in power to see their side of an issue. As their goals come closer to significantly disrupting the status quo they will face greater resistance. Logically they will shift their focus to sending lawmakers who are "uneducated" on their issues into permanent retirement.
In order to better serve their constituents, it in the best interest of legislators to educate themselves on the issues of interest to the tech lobby as soon as possible. You don't want to be on the wrong end of the keyboards of this powerful constituency if you can help it.