A seat at the table

The top lobbyist for the Internet industry says it’s his job to prevent a repeat of the 2012 Internet blackout protest over anti-piracy legislation.

That protest, which included popular websites Google, Wikipedia and Reddit, was one of the most successful political advocacy efforts in history. In one day, the blackout forced lawmakers to drop legislation backed by the entertainment industry that, only a few weeks earlier, had seemed set to sail through Congress.

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But Michael Beckerman, the CEO of the newly formed Internet Association, said the protest was only necessary because the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act posed such serious threats to the Internet. It’s his job, he explained, to convince lawmakers not to even consider similar legislation in the future.

“Our measure of success would be that never comes up again because members of Congress are paying attention; they understand that our companies matter, our users matter and that our sector of the economy is unique,” he said in an interview with The Hill in his office in Washington, adding that he will ensure that the Internet industry has a “seat at the table.” 

Even before the protests over SOPA, Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, had discussed forming a new lobbying group focused on Internet issues. Although those companies belong to other Washington-based lobby groups such as TechAmerica and the Information Technology Industry Council, those associations represent the broader technology industry, including device-makers and software companies.

Beckerman explained that the interests and policy positions of Web companies don’t always match those of other tech companies. Many software firms, for example, have pushed for tougher enforcement of anti-piracy laws. 

Beckerman was recruited to lead the new Internet lobbying group last year, and the Internet Association formally launched in September.

As a longtime House aide and deputy staff director for Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Beckerman had focused mostly on energy issues, according to Mike Ference, a lobbyist and former House Republican staffer.

“I think everyone was surprised he would jump over and go in the tech space,” Ference said. “But he’s built out a sizable and powerful organization in a very short period of time.”

Beckerman acknowledged that Silicon Valley has a liberal reputation, but he said that being both a Republican and their top lobbyist hasn’t been an issue for him. 

“This industry has become very bipartisan,” Beckerman said, noting that both parties stated support for Internet freedom in their 2012 platforms. 

He explained that setting up a new lobbying shop was a lot like starting a small business. He had to write the organization’s bylaws, hire an accounting firm to deal with the financial details and find office space. 

“We had to go through the steps just like a small business or an Internet startup,” Beckerman said. “It was interesting starting this group because it’s a [familiar] situation for many of our companies where they started with one person in someone’s garage or they started with a couple guys in a dorm room.”

Before he secured the group’s office, he worked from his kitchen table. And before they bought furniture, his office consisted of a laptop on a box and a coffee maker.

The group started with 14 members and now has 16 with more to come, Beckerman said. Almost all of the largest Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo, eBay and LinkedIn have signed on.

Despite the fact that the group hasn’t been around long, Beckerman said he hasn’t had any problems gaining respect and access on Capitol Hill. 

“It’s not hard to go up to the Hill and say, ‘Hey, we represent the Internet, you know our companies, can we come in and talk to you about something?’ Of course they want to talk to us about it,” he said. “People are interested.”

One of the top issues for the Internet Association is protecting users’ privacy from government snooping. The group is lobbying Congress to update a 1986 privacy law to require police to obtain a warrant before accessing email accounts and other online information.

“If the government needs a warrant to get a letter out of your mailbox or if the government needs a warrant to go into your house and open your filing cabinet, we think they should need the same to get your email or your cloud storage,” Beckerman said.

The Internet Association is also opposed to a proposal that would require Web companies to make it easier for police to wiretap their services. 

Beckerman declined to comment on the recent revelation that the National Security Agency is obtaining data on Internet users through a program called PRISM. The CEOs of the major companies have released public statements emphasizing their commitment to privacy and saying they have not given the NSA direct access to their servers or turned over massive batches of user information.

Internet companies rely on their customers’ trusting them with their most sensitive personal information. If people stop believing their information is being protected, they are less likely to use the online service.

Although protecting users’ privacy from the government is a top priority for the Internet Association, the group takes a different view of proposals to impose privacy protection standards on the companies themselves.

President Obama has called on Congress to pass comprehensive privacy protection legislation, and the Federal Trade Commission has said users should be able to opt out of online tracking. 

But Beckerman argued that users should be able to pick the services they want and that companies are already transparent about how they handle people’s personal information. 

“It’s not for Congress to get in and micromanage that relationship [between company and user],” Beckerman said. “Because if they do, it’s going to kill the next Facebook. It’s going to kill the next Google.”

Although his member companies see eye to eye on most issues, one major division has emerged: Amazon and eBay are in the midst of a lobbying war against each other over legislation that would empower states to tax online purchases. Beckerman explained that because there is no consensus among his members on the legislation, his group will sit out the fight.

One fight that the Internet Association is involved in, along with other tech groups, is pushing for immigration legislation that allows more high-skilled workers to come to the United States. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has recruited other Silicon Valley executives to a separate political advocacy group, called Fwd.us, focused on immigration legislation.

Beckerman denied that that Zuckerberg’s group is stealing attention from the Internet Association, saying the two groups have a “cooperative relationship.”

The Internet Association plans to launch a new website to get Internet users and activists involved in its causes. The group will also soon expand beyond its staff of seven employees and will likely need to look for new office space, Beckerman said. 

“Our companies are significant players in the economy,” he said. “We’re new; it’s a new part of the economy, but they’re here to stay.”