The Internet Association, which is the biggest lobbying group in Silicon Valley, is having trouble balancing the different needs of the companies it represents at a time when the industry is facing anger from both parties.
Why it matters: Without a unified industry voice, the tech will have to fight policy battles over things like antitrust, content moderation, and privacy.
What’s going on: Big tech companies have been getting a lot of attention lately for putting a hold on political donations after last week’s deadly attack on the Capitol.
- But lobbying, which is the other main way to get things done in Washington, hasn’t worked for tech in a long time.
The biggest problem in tech is that there are too many companies with different goals.
- Almost ten years ago, the Internet Association was set up to be Silicon Valley’s voice in Washington.
- But now, its biggest members, like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, are starting to run into each other more and more as they try to divert policymakers’ anger away from themselves. Their goals can be very different from those of smaller members.
- For example, Facebook has shown that it’s open to new federal laws that set privacy rules and make small changes to Section 230, the tech industry’s liability shield. Smaller companies worry that big companies could handle the cost of complying while they would struggle to stay in business.
“What they’re saying is that a trade association can only do what its members tell it to do,” one person familiar with IA’s work told Axios. “When Facebook asks for rules to be put in place, it hurts the smaller companies.” It makes it hard for any organization to work well if it has both of these groups as members.
IA faces some problems that are unique to the organization:
- A lack of leadership that it may just now be getting over. It just named Dane Snowden as its new president and CEO. Before that, he was the COO of NCTA, a cable lobbying group. The company lost its previous president, Michael Beckerman, to TikTok a year ago. Michael Bloom, who is the top lobbyist for IA, went to TikTok as well.
- Not enough money. Even though its members have a lot of money, the group has a lot less money to spend than groups that represent industries with similar amounts of money. In 2019, it got more than $9 million in membership dues, which is a small amount compared to the $63 million that NCTA got in dues that same year.
- Disengaged members. IA’s board is mostly made up of people in charge of government relations, not company leaders like those in wireless or cable lobbying groups. On Capitol Hill, this lack of interest from tech’s top leaders is felt. One Hill aide told Axios, “You don’t really feel like they have the weight of the companies behind them.” “They talk for you, but if you want to do something, you need to call the companies directly.”
The other side: Jon Berroya, IA’s interim CEO, said, “The Internet Association is an organization in transition, but despite the challenges we faced in 2020, we have continued to change.” One way we did this was by keeping and hiring subject-matter experts.
- “Having Dane take over as IA’s new CEO gives us a natural chance to try something new,” he said.
Where it stands: The group still lobbies for its members and gives testimony on their behalf. But tech CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai, and Tim Cook are now mostly expected to show up to congressional hearings themselves instead of sending a representative from a trade group.
- IA doesn’t do anything about antitrust. That makes it less effective, and big companies fight hard for their own interests, often changing the policy discussion company by company, a leader in the tech industry told Axios.
The only game in town isn’t IA. There are a lot of other tech lobby groups, like the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which represents companies that sell commercial software, and the Consumer Technology Association, which represents companies that make consumer electronics (and which also puts on CES each year, now underway).
Yes, but that means that the different other groups can only look out for the interests of their small part of the industry. All of Silicon Valley is in a tough spot because people on both sides of the aisle are angry about tech and are coming down hard on it.
- One former industry executive said, “The tech industry has said it likes having a hall of mirrors so it can choose where to go with each issue.” “Before the techlash, that was fine. “Not right now.”
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