Why Zuckerberg's Super PAC Won't Speak for Start-ups
Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly spearheading a new multi-million dollar Super PAC. The group--which includes such high-profile Silicon Valley names as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, eBay CEO John Donahoe, and storied Keiner Perkins VC John Doerr--wants to push Washington on some industry hot-button issues, including education, immigration reform, and long-term economic improvement.
Is there a hidden agenda? Hard to know, but the group is supposedly working with both Republican- and Democrat-affiliated lobbyist firms, which would indicate an unusually pragmatic approach to addressing problems. Getting anything done by the federal government in the near future will require buy-in from both parties.
In other words, this could be more than the typical picture of tech executives hosting parties for Democratic candidates. The structure sounds like the group is more focused on success than one side or another. Certainly the tech industry has clamored for immigration reform for a while, with an eye on greater availability of visas for expert scientists and engineers from other countries. Education? The industry sees it as a potential feeder system, to train future employees. And who would argue for a worse general economy.
Big Tech's Agenda
But high tech is not an industry with a single set of players and a unified collection of goals. Is the good for Facebook the good for all? Unlikely. Look at immigration reform, for one. Facebook and some other tech giants want easier access to highly trained workers from overseas. But the program for bringing highly trained workers to the U.S. from other countries has been criticized as actually unnecessary and a mechanism for depressing the wages of domestic workers, which could mean an effective subsidy for large corporations at the expense of small companies that must compete for the same workers but without the extensive legal and operational staff to make the system work for them.
Zuckerberg and his company have been willing to push the bounds of privacy with users, for example. He's managed to make many consumers, and regulators, wary. Continued pressure on that front, even with campaign donations, won't necessarily coax politicians to bend on topics that could become radioactive if used by opponents during campaigns. If this new group tries to change regulation in the interest of Facebook, it has the potential of tarring other companies around it. Or it just might be successful in ways that lower a privacy burden to boost the advantage that access to personal information can provide--an advantage of having large amounts of information unavailable to most start-ups.
Other Issues to Watch
How else could government action favor one part of Silicon Valley at the expense of others? Further changing protection of intellectual property in ways that favor large companies over small, for one. Or perhaps Facebook might work to keep and expand the type of opportunities for lowering corporate taxes that are generally available to larger, not smaller, companies.
Any time someone with a penchant for ignoring criticism and forging ahead in its own practices--as has been true of Zuckerberg and his company--spearheads an attempt to affect public policy, it is time to be wary. Even if some of the benefits of change might spill over to entrepreneurs, it is more likely that large tech companies will reap the biggest rewards.
ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist
Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.