Relations Between Washington And Tech Industry Are Frosty

Apr 10, 2018
Originally published on April 10, 2018 8:34 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is the day that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg begins testifying on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have so many questions. They're worried about consumer privacy and about how Russian agents used Facebook, and Google and Twitter to manipulate voters in the presidential election. All of this has chilled the relationship between Washington and one of America's most powerful industries. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Zuckerberg last week gave reporters a preview of his crisis-management strategy for the hearings.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: We didn't take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is, and that was a huge mistake. It was my mistake.

OVERBY: The stakes are high. Zuckerberg and some others in Silicon Valley say regulation might be needed, a reversal of the industry's long-held position.

NICOLE WONG: I think it's a watershed moment both for policymakers and technology companies.

OVERBY: Nicole Wong is a technology lawyer who's worked at Google, Twitter and the Obama White House. She said companies lost track of the social implications as they built new platforms.

WONG: They are now realizing how little the public understands about how data and social media environments work.

OVERBY: It's just the latest breakdown in communications between Washington and Silicon Valley. In the early days, they pretty much ignored each other. But in 1998, President Bill Clinton's Justice Department accused Microsoft of building a software monopoly. A settlement was negotiated, and the tech industry learned something.

LEE DRUTMAN: You hire a lot of lobbyists who are well-connected.

OVERBY: Lee Drutman studies lobbying at the think tank New America. He laid out how the companies work Washington. Facebook opened its D.C. office when it was five years old and already worth billions. It hires lots of top-tier veteran lobbyists. Google does this, too. The lobbying environment is ideal. Many lawmakers don't fully understand the technology, and Congress lacks the institutional resources to teach them. Facebook reported its 2017 lobbying cost nearly $12 million. Google spent even more - 18 million.

DRUTMAN: You spread a lot of money around.

OVERBY: And some of it goes to think tanks. They can shape policy debates on Capitol Hill. For instance, New America, where Drutman works, has had grants from both Google and Facebook. And then there's campaign money.

DRUTMAN: People will get that warm glow. This company's a good friend to my campaign.

OVERBY: Facebook's PAC and employees gave $4.6 million in the 2016 cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. For Google's parent company, the total was nearly 9 million.

DRUTMAN: Then you go in, and you make your case.

OVERBY: Drutman says all of this is to be expected.

DRUTMAN: Google and Facebook have become so central in our economy, and it's not surprising that they've become tremendous players here.

OVERBY: In 2012, Internet content companies mobilized their users against antipiracy legislation that Hollywood wanted. Capitol Hill got roughly 18 million messages opposing the bill, which then died a quiet death. This is Republican John Boehner, who was speaker of the House.

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JOHN BOEHNER: It's pretty clear to many of us that there's a lack of consensus at this point.

OVERBY: The current crisis is different. Facebook has apologized for letting political consultants acquire the data of up to 87 million users. Zuckerberg said last week, the data scraping went even further thanks to a Facebook search tool that was usually switched on.

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ZUCKERBERG: You know, we've seen some scraping. I would assume that if you had that setting turned on, that someone at some point has accessed your public information in this way.

OVERBY: So Congress faces a tangle of complex problems. Nicole Wong said a congressional hearing is probably not the best place to deal with them.

WONG: People, I think, are going to be watching it to evaluate Mark Zuckerberg's performance or for a gotcha moment rather than thinking about it as an important piece of a broader conversation about the role of social media in our lives.

OVERBY: A conversation where social media companies and Congress both have a lot at stake. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRENT REZNOR AND ATTICUS ROSS' "PAINTED SUN IN ABSTRACT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.