They trash each other in the marketplace and sue each other in courts. But lately, tech companies and their leaders have been holding hands to fight for things they care about in Washington, from immigration reform to National Security Agency damage control.
The shift represents a growing political savvy among the industry’s biggest players and a recognition that there are advantages to working in concert when it comes to public policy.“No single leader or group is organizing all these oars rowing in the same direction, but they are,” said Cathy Sloan, vice president of government relations at the Computer & Communications Industry Association. “Chalk it up to improved self-knowledge and sophistication about what makes sense and what does not for the health of the global Internet ecosystem, of which all these companies are interdependent parts.” The primary example is immigration reform. Tech company lobbyists and industry trade groups have linked arms to work for passage of legislation, holding Monday strategy calls, deploying teams to focus on lawmakers by party and by chamber and acting as a coordinator among the disparate groups pushing Congress to act. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has tapped Silicon Valley’s leading executives and investors to join his reform advocacy group, FWD.us. His group and others in the tech sector are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, an evolution from the industry’s past strategy of focusing narrowly on its desire for more high-skilled visas. “I was really heartened by the response,” Zuckerberg said of his fellow tech CEOs during an interview last week at the Newseum in Washington. “All these folks care about the bigger issue.” It is too early to declare tech industry peace, say insiders. Companies are not aligned on every issue, including industry priorities like patent and tax reform. They continue to fight ferociously in the courts over patents and take swipes at each other in public. And prominent industry players, like Apple, are standing apart from the increased engagement with Washington. But something has shifted, and immigration reform isn’t the only area in which the industry is standing together. This month, LinkedIn joined Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo in suing the federal government to demand more transparency when it comes to the nation’s surveillance programs. Prominent venture capitalist John Doerr called the development “stunning,” noting that “Google and Microsoft, who hardly ever agree on anything,” are leading the charge. The tech firms have at times tried to outdo each other in describing their efforts to push for more government transparency. But their tandem legal strategy reflects shared anxiety that the NSA revelations could lead to lost business — particularly overseas — and regulations that could restrict the flow of data across borders. In their lawsuits, the companies echoed each other’s arguments for why they should be allowed to publish more information about national security orders. In the coming weeks, they will have to work together more closely — the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered the companies to file their briefs as a single reply. Despite the growing sense of cooperation on policy, there are frequent reminders that rivalries run deep. Outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, speaking to financial analysts last week, said Google is a monopoly that deserves the attention of competition authorities, according to reports. His comments came days after Microsoft unveiled the latest phase of its “Scroogled” advertising campaign, which seeks to undermine confidence in Google over its use of consumer data. And the technology industry’s high-profile smartphone patent wars continue. One example: Google’s Motorola Mobility unit recently filed a suit to reopen its case against Apple over mobile phone technology. Silicon Valley has rallied around policy issues in the past. Google and other websites mounted an unprecedented Internet campaign to stop anti-piracy legislation in 2012. The industry fought for an extension of the research and development tax credit and has promoted education in science, technology, engineering and math. In May, Facebook joined Microsoft, Yahoo and Google in the Global Network Initiative, an organization that audits firms on their human rights policies. But the confluence of major issues in Washington is giving tech companies more reason to join forces. “The reason it appears to be more unified now, I believe, is that immigration reform has moved from advocacy and speculation to possible reality,” said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. At the same time, he said, the disclosures about NSA surveillance have “presented a serious challenge to a large share of the tech industry.” Washington still has a profusion of technology trade groups focused on specific sectors like software, semiconductors, app developers and Web companies — which often pursue separate agendas. The diversity of groups has helped tech firms with different viewpoints speak out more, said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, founded last year by companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook. But, he added, “there are issues where hardware, software and Internet stand shoulder-to-shoulder working together.”