TechNet, a prominent Washington, D.C based tech advocacy group and self-proclaimed “Voice of the Innovation Economy” that counts Apple, Paypal, and Airbnb as members, recently voiced opposition to the Trump administration’s shameful updated executive order on immigration.
Although TechNet “speaks” on behalf of its members, the broad composition of the group provides a political shield for companies whose interests may be threatened by explicitly coming out against the immigration ban.
As described in a recent article, many individual tech companies have been “mute” on the new immigration executive order, potentially to save their political capital for the administration’s promised rewrite of the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers. If a company’s political calculus changes at a later date however, they can always point to their membership in TechNet as evidence of prior support.
Silicon Valley titans have recognized that through the vehicle of industry groups (or trade associations as they are called in DC), such as TechNet, they, like the leading corporations of most other industries, can advance both their political and business imperatives.
According to Bloomberg, the tech industry “embedded itself in Washington” during President Obama’s eight years in office and in 2015, tech firms outspent the five largest banks combined by $30 million on lobbying the administration and Congress. The emergence of tech industry trade associations is part of this recent focus from Silicon Valley to influence decision makers in our nation’s capital.
Trade associations provide vital “know how” for navigating the vast, and often convoluted processes required to craft legislation, influence regulators and their respective agencies, and forge coalitions with likeminded and seemingly unique bedfellows. They also can provide invaluable information and education to lawmakers, regulators and the public during complex and pressing policy debates.
These organizations, which come in all different shapes and sizes, can have a macro or micro focus. The American Gaming Association, which promotes and lobbies on behalf of casinos, wields influence on Capitol Hill and state legislatures across the country. Meanwhile, the Greater Pittsburgh Automobile Dealers Association, exclusively represents the interests of car dealerships exclusively in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.
Such associations also tend to support the interests of competing firms within the same business ecosystem. The US Travel Association, which advocates on behalf of the travel and tourism industry, includes both Avis and Enterprise as members. In these cases, businesses in direct competition for market share will band together in order to navigate the complexities of engaging with government regulators.
Competitors like Avis and Enterprise calculate that a unified voice directed at legislators and regulators can yield a mutually beneficial outcome that far outweighs what could be gained – or lost – from engaging with government on their own. This is a unique example of an all-for-one mentality in a capitalist economy.
Major technology firms, despite prevailing maxims in Silicon Valley that have tended to eschew government interaction, are no different than Avis and Enterprise. As an example, the Internet Association (which was seeded by Amazon, Google, Facebook and eBay in 2012 and is based in Washington, D.C.) counts as its members some of the largest internet companies by market cap. This organization represents the interests of top technology companies across a myriad of public policy issues including net neutrality, immigration reform, and data security to name a few.
The most recent manifestation of the tech industry trade association centers around specific technologies and some of the tech sector’s biggest companies – and biggest rivals – are throwing their support behind these new organizations that advocate not just for an industry, but for a specific technology.
Google, Uber, Lyft, and Ford – among the most well-known companies advancing autonomous vehicle technology – have united to create the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a group charged with working with regulators and lawmakers to “realize the safety and societal benefits of self-driving vehicles.”
This coalition will draw on the pooled resources and expertise of their parent companies to advance the strongest effort possible to ensure that regulations, and if necessary legislation, formulated around AV technology will be favorable to their collective business interests.
Another example is the Partnership on AI, which was established last September by Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft among others. This group, which counts among its parent members the world’s leading companies pushing the scientific boundaries of artificial intelligence, intends to “provide a regular, structured platform for AI researchers and key stakeholders to communicate directly and openly with each other about relevant issues” and while they “do not intend to lobby” they are confident that their “independent reflection and analysis” will be “useful to policy makers.”
Disseminating information and engaging or activating key stakeholders are critical (and familiar) functions of any trade group or lobbying firm, and the hesitancy to admit that lobbying will be an organizational function may be due to the Silicon Valley stigma around such activity or the desire to retain a disinterested hue and therefore a more credible negotiating voice. Fortunately, it appears that the Partnership on AI intends to strongly advocate its policy positions to regulators who hold the ultimate keys to unlocking the vast economic potential surrounding AI.
Trade associations can also cloak the negative activities of its individual members, therefore protecting legitimate negotiations and dialogues from being derailed over political or business mishaps. If a specific company had a contentious week by navigating claims of gender bias in the workplace or if another company is charged with promulgating fake news, associations can ensure that isolated instances don’t compromise the greater mission of the trade association.
Finally, trade associations can keep a check on individual companies trying to attain first mover advantage, at least in a regulatory sense. General Motors for example, recently proposed legislation in several states that would limit the deployment of autonomous vehicles on public roads to “only vehicle manufacturers” thereby excluding companies like Uber and Google and creating an uncompetitive business environment . The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets has been one of the strongest dissenting voices in getting the GM authored bills voted down in state legislatures.
It’s important to keep in mind that lawmakers and government regulators for their part put forth specific and sophisticated efforts to ensure public imperatives are balanced with corporate objectives. Recently, Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) helped form theCongressional Blockchain Caucus, which will serve to educate legislators on blockchain technology – an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value – and establish a laboratory for policy origination.
Congressional caucuses exist for a panoply of tech specific issues including the Internet of Things, bio-engineering, micro-businesses (i.e. shared economy) and Open Source Technology. In addition, teams of experts who focus on specific technology topics and advise and participate on rule-making work across the federal government.
Silicon Valley’s use of trade associations to push forward groundbreaking new technology is a welcome evolution of the industry’s lobbying efforts in DC and other capitals of influence. The formulation of new regulation can be slow to occur without significant pressure and trade associations can spark regulatory action by harnessing and mobilizing the united power of numerous companies. In addition, trade associations advance progress collectively, ensuring that new legislative and policy landscapes are favorable to all members of a trade association.
This limits the influence of one domineering company and creates a more competitive business ecosystem. Finally, the fact that many authoritative voices can come together – both from the private and public sectors – to build the new societal and economic frameworks that will be required by the advent of new technology like AI and AV will lead to more balanced outcomes.
From artificial intelligence to autonomous vehicles, from bio-engineering to blockchain, the emergence of technology-specific trade associations, seeded and supported by the world’s leading technology companies, will be a strong and necessary force in defining future regulatory and legislative debates, debates that will have an enormous impact on our future economy and everyday lives.
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