Obama, Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Schmidt: Don’t Discount the Lobbying

President Obama is slated to meet with software captains of industry this evening. The most notable players include Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eric Schmidt. A lot of media commentary seems to be treating this as a celeb gathering, or some kind of running joke. What are they really going to talk about? Isn’t the 26-year-old Zuck a little young to be involved in this?

The point missing from this dialogue is that Silicon Valley software companies have become a major political force in the last decade. They spend millions on lobbying, hire hotshot lobbyists, and have people on both sides of the revolving door. (Al Gore is an Apple director and a Google adviser. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg used to be a Google VP and worked in Larry Summers’ Treasury Dept. before that.)

Though this meeting sounds glamorous on the surface, in execution, it’s the same let’s-scratch-each-others’-backs that you might see in a manufacturing or big oil meeting. Just call it Big Software.

OpenSecrets has more on the Silicon Valley lobbying tour de force:

In 2010, the computer and Internet industry as a whole was the seventh biggest lobbying spender among all industries and special interest areas, investing more than $120 million on related expenditures, the Center for Responsive Politics finds.

“What we can do — what America does better than anyone — is spark the creativity and imagination of our people,” President Barack Obama said. “We are the nation that put cars in driveways and computers in offices; the nation of Edison and the Wright brothers; of Google and Facebook.”

For Google and Facebook, the president serving as their pitchman is indicative of their meteoric rise both outside and within Washington, D.C. And it marks how the political landscape has rapidly shifted for computer and Internet companies, with Washington nonentities of just a few years ago now ranking among the most prominent players in the capital.

TechCrunch has specifics on what each company is interested in:

Policy areas of focus for Facebook include global regulation of software companies and restrictions on internet access by foreign governments; internet privacy regulations, cyber security, and FCC regulations on net neutrality. In total, Facebook spent $351,390 on lobbying in 2010.

Google spent $5.2 million on lobbying in 2010. Google’s lobbying strategy for this quarter focused on online advertising regulation including privacy and competition issues, patent reform, cyber security and online privacy, renewable energy, freedom of expression and censorship, tax reform, free trade, Congressional Internet service usage rules and broadband access.

Apple is notoriously secretive, but here Macrumors and Politico have some hints about its policy interests:

Apple and these other major players are reportedly stepping up lobbying efforts to try to get the federal government to offer a one-year “tax holiday” that would allow them to bring the profits back to the United States while only being subjected to 5% tax, with the rationale being that the money could be put to work in the U.S. to stimulate the economy rather than simply sitting in foreign bank accounts.

Official lobbying disclosures show the company picked up the firm Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock on Feb. 1 to handle “innovation” issues in Washington. It’s an unexpected expansion for a company that typically keeps a low Washington profile.

Apple has received scrutiny from regulators, who have eyed its App Store guidelines and its handling of Flash video on the iPhone. At the same time, Capitol Hill has ramped up debate over issues such as online privacy and competitiveness – topics that could affect Apple’s bottom line.

Apple’s 2010 lobbying forms reflect the company has been an active participant in those conversations, speaking to lawmakers and federal regulators about patents, research funding, free trade agreements and taxes. It’s new outside firm, Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock, has handled some of those issues for other industry clients such as CTIA, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Time Warner Cable and the Coalition for Patent Fairness.

To some extent, Apple, Google, and Facebook’s rootsy brand images veil the fact that in execution, they count as Corporate America. Apple has the charismatic Jobs and still holds that anti-Microsoft, outsider image, even though its status has really changed in recent years. Google has its “Googliness”–art on the homepage, innovative software programs, and a reputation as a really “different” place to work. Facebook still appears young and hip, with that college association. But these companies are real players. Discounting that is avoiding the truth.

  • Suppose, saying that President has been avoiding meeting software guys is too much. But meeting people who may be more powerful that you isn’t a piece of cake, huh?