Zuckerberg's FWD: Making Sure They Get It Right

Mark Zuckerberg built himself a political action committee called FWD.us, and they’re diving headfirst into trying to change immigration policy as their first priority. They seem to have good goals, and they’ve already adopted some extremely polarizing tactics, so I’ve tried to collect my thoughts here, as informed by a roundtable conversation yesterday which included FWD.us President and co-founder Joe Green. Spoilers: I don’t have a simple, easy “It sucks!” or “It’s great!” conclusion about FWD.us, but hopefully I’ve put together enough perspective here to help inform the discussion, provide some specific areas of improvement for the PAC, and offer a useful starting point for the discussion within the tech community of how we’d like to be effective in driving policy, whether specifically about immigration or on any broader issue.

It’s already clear that with FWD.us, the tech industry is going to have to reckon with exactly how real the realpolitik is going to get. If we’re finally moving past our innocent, naive and idealistic lack of engagement with the actual dirty dealings of legislation, then let’s try to figure out how to do it without losing our souls.

The Fundamentals

Mark Zuckerberg wrote an editorial in the Washington Post a few weeks ago announcing the launch of FWD.us, in concert with a list of prominent Silicon Valley supporters. (Post CEO/Chairman Donald Graham is on Facebook’s board, hence the choice of platform.) Zuck started by listing top-tier tech execs like Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt and Marissa Mayer, went through listing VCs and investors who are well known within the industry, and concludes with former Facebookers Aditya Agarwal and Ruchi Sanghvi, who aren’t big names in the industry but are actual immigrants, in contrast to most of the other backers. Shortly after launch, names like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings and Fred Wilson were added as they apparently became financial backers as well.

All those dollars are being spent to support an organization that’s pretty small — half a dozen people in Silicon Valley and four people on the ground in DC. ADrian Chen’s excellent look at FWD.us offers lots of good perspective on the functioning and funding of FWD.us, but this is an organization that seems to be built with a long-term mission in mind.

I’ve long wanted the tech industry to engage in a serious and effective way with the policy world. At the peak of the protests against SOPA and PIPA, my dream was that we might black out our sites in protest of torture as state policy rather than simply focusing on self-serving goals. And while we’ve thus far had limited avenues for participation such as the White House’s innovative petition platform, we obviously haven’t played in the serious realm of policy before, either with our attention and interest or with the greasing of palms that actually makes legislation happen in DC.

So if we’ve got a practical organization working on meaningful problems and that’s what I’ve wanted the tech industry to do, why am I so concerned? Let’s take a look.

This is Zuckerberg’s Game

Move Fast and Break Things

I come by my skepticism about Mark Zuckerberg sincerely. This is a man who’s an absolute radical extremist when it comes to issues of identity and privacy. He ignores his own privilege when making decisions that impact the lives of billions of people around the world. And his single greatest credential for engaging in civics or the public sphere was stage managed by Sheryl Sandberg in response to an unflattering movie portrayal. Worse, his donation to those Newark schools has yet to yield any substantive results, despite its extravagant scale. There’s very little to indicate that Zuckerberg’s ability to make a popular social network translates into effective policy advocacy. Worse, his extremism in regard to people’s personal information and identities as seen as some esoteric tech concern, and not as a serious threat to civil rights and personal freedom with significant political implications.

Mark Zuckerberg already has tremendous political impact, but it’s in realms that most people in mainstream society don’t yet identify as being political, including Zuckerberg himself.

But folks like Joe Green (From NationBuilder and Causes, and President and Co-founder with Zuckerberg of FWD.us, though the site lists him as “Founder”) and Daniel Shih (a Rhodes scholar Stanford Grad who worked as a policy analyst for Joe Biden) are much more credible and intentional political actors than Zuckerberg. Both of these guys have engaged with policy for some time, and to their credit they also have reasonable credentials for being sincere in their desire for meaningful immigration reform. So let’s look at what they’re doing right and wrong.

The Good

  • Lots of money: FWD.us seems to be backed by a real, serious investment of tens of millions of dollars that they’re willing to spend on advancing their agenda. This isn’t a casual slacktivist effort by a few techies who want to meet with politicians, it’s enough funding to support a protracted engagement in Washington, D.C. That’s progress.
  • Pragmatic tactics: They’re trying to win, by doing pragmatic things like ad buys in the home districts of congresspeople who are both on the fence on the immigration issue and at risk in upcoming elections. For too many years, geeks have tried using ineffective, unrealistic tactics to influence politicians, but spending money the same way that real, grown-up industries do is important. It’s especially key that the spending be accompanied by education of elected officials about issues and how an industry functions — these basic methods are what power successful lobbying efforts from teachers’ unions to military contractors, oil companies to pharmaceutical companies.
  • Multi-faceted reform: If I take Green’s statements yesterday at face value, then FWD.us doesn’t intend to focus just on the narrow immigration challenges for engineering professionals (so called “skilled” immigrants), but on comprehensive immigration reform, encompassing border security for conservatives and paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to appease progressives. This is the claim I’m most skeptical about, but they’ve repeated this breadth of commitment explicitly, and unprompted, in several different meetings so I’m cautiously optimistic that the intention is sincere.
  • Transparency, kinda: Much of the criticism of FWD.us has been about their willingness to fund politicians on both ends of the conventional political spectrum (more on that below). But the reason we know FWD.us backs both the obviously conservative Americans for Conservative Direction and the ostensibly-progressive Council for American Job Growth is because there’s actually a surprising amount of information available about where FWD.us is sending its money. Who knows if this will stay true now that their transparency has been used to criticize the PAC, but thus far at least, it’s a surprising amount of visibility into where the funds flow.
  • Proactive, not reactive: We’ve seen from SOPA/PIPA, and to some degree from later efforts like the CISPA actions led by the Internet Defense League, that geeks are willing to try and stop legislation that they think is bad. But long term, staying on defense all the time doesn’t get any points scored, and so I’m happy to see any tech-led initiative that’s aimed at actually creating good legislation, not just stopping bad laws.

What Sucks

Given my skepticism about FWD.us in general, and about Mark Zuckerberg in particular, it’s surprising how many positive aspects I’ve found to the organization. Naturally, I’ve found just as many negatives to the organization:

  • No standards for what’s beyond the pale: This is slightly different from the primary criticisms from the tech industry. Much ink has been spilled by those concerned that FWD.us is funding ads promoting drilling in ANWR or building the Keystone XL pipeline; TechPresident’s Sarah Lai Stirland ably describes the reaction of geeks, which ranges from baffled to disgusted, a perspective well articulated by Josh Miller of Branch. But Green made a smart case for the pragmatic strange-bedfellows approach that FWD.us is taking on backing candidates, so my concern is more nuanced: What positions won’t be supported by FWD.us? We know they’ll go counter to most of their ostensible constituents (and a few of their financial backers) on issues like oil drilling, but what about marriage equality? There clearly must be some standards, but are they documented, and if so are they by consensus of all the funders of FWD.us, let alone by consensus of the industry the organization claims to represent?
  • There’s no admission of “collateral damage”: Green used the phrase “collateral damage” to refer to the important issues that might get sacrificed in favor of a single-minded (at present) focus on immigration reform, and it seems relevant. If we compromise on marriage equality and bring in a new crop of immigrant workers but many of them aren’t able to bring their spouses, how can that be considered success? FWD.us needs to communicate clearly to those of us who it would like to enlist in a grassroots community about where it draws the line. Will they back ads that promote the border safety plank of the immigration reform bill by using images or language that vilify people of color? What cost is too high?
  • The case for H1B increases is not solid: Within the technology industry, it’s been taken as an article of faith for some time that we have a talent shortage in the United States, and that there aren’t enough STEM graduates here in the U.S. to meet the industry’s needs. I had accepted this conventional wisdom as correct without questioning it for so long that I was deeply disappointed in my credulity when this recent Economic Policy Institute report provided a well-supported set of evidence that we actually don’t have a talent shortage. We reflexively talk about overseas talent as the solution to a tech shortage, but we seldom talk about whether there’s evidence for that “shortage”. The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann outlines the issue well, and he’s been on this beat for a while with pieces like this article from February. FWD.us needs to either clearly demonstrate that this shortage exists, or explain why these findings don’t apply to the technology industry that it is trying to serve.
  • What will we do for these workers? Even if we concede that there’s a talent shortage, or if we simply accept that it’s a good goal to have smart immigrants coming to the United States, almost no part of the conversation from FWD.us has been about how they’ll help improve conditions for the workers who come to the country on these visas. H1B workers live in a costly, stressful limbo for years on end, with little control over their professional careers and with their personal lives often being stuck in suspended animation. Immigrant workers of all sorts, whether in the technology industry or in so-called “unskilled” trades such as agriculture or the hospitality industry, have significantly less control over their working conditions, wages and negotiations with employers, and meaningful immigration reform has to give a worker a life where they’re not living as an indentured servant to a company that can essentially threaten them with deportation-by-firing at any time. FWD.us must address the issues of dignity and respect that immigrant workers are often denied.
  • You’re the richest people in the world, and this is what you work on? Despite FWD.us’s protests that they’re working on areas such as education and science funding (both of which I care about a lot!) it’s hard to believe this is the most important issue that this group of incredibly powerful and wealthy people can support. Essentially they’re pushing an agenda that will make a number of super-rich people slightly more rich, while providing some legitimate jobs and opportunities to people who’ll never substantially participate in the profit-taking that FWD.us’s benefactors will enjoy. It’d be easier to believe that FWD.us will be a positive force if we knew the full breadth of its agenda.

How to get this right

There are a lot of good intentions, and a lot of grave concerns, about FWD.us. Here’s what they can do to address these issues, making the PAC both more effective and less fraught with risk.

  • If FWD.us wants to “win”, how is “winning” defined? Provide a clear public list of which policies the organization wants to impact, which bills or proposed legislation they support, and which causes or debates they won’t use to achieve their goals.
  • Don’t concede to politicians that you have to support their most cynical, extremist issues. Maybe pragmatism requires FWD.us to back a candidate that is against background checks for guns; Sometimes life has these compromises. But instead of funneling dollars into a campaign vilifying a reasonable compromise on weapon reform, FWD.us could simply pay money for conventional attack ads against the candidate’s opponent on other policy grounds. Starting with zero spine on non-immigration issues that Silicon Valley cares about is going to make it impossible to go back and fix things later.
  • Stop bullshitting about whether this is Zuckerberg’s personal agenda or Facebook’s corporate agenda. The stated claim this is a personal from Zuckerberg, but given his dominant control of the company what’s the difference? If Facebook is blocking ads that protest FWD.us on the grounds that Zuckerberg is intrinsically part of Facebook’s brand, then it’s pretty clear what the reality is. Acknowledge that this is both company policy and Zuckerberg’s personal focus.
  • Relatedly, Zuckerberg is focusing his social, technical and political powers on a set of goals, but he’s never identified those goals nor been made to answer for his extremist, radical principles. This is critical especially because of Zuckerberg’s backing of Chris Christie — are tech’s biggest names being used to prep a policy platform for a future Presidential campaign? It’s easy to overlook, but given the number of big names involved, there are undoubtedly tech execs who are going to contribute to FWD.us simply to ensure that they’re seen as part of Zuckerberg’s A-list. That’s a hell of a commitment given how opaque Zuckerberg’s overall agenda is.
  • Finally: What are they going to do when the coalition falls apart as FWD.us starts to succeed or fail. What if a candidate who’s against foreign aid for preventing malaria asks for an ad from FWD.us? Is Bill Gates going to let his money be spent backing that politician?

One of Mark Zuckerberg’s most famous mottos is “Move fast and break things.” When it comes to policy impacting the lives of millions of people around the world, there couldn’t be a worse slogan. Let’s see if we can get FWD.us to be as accountable to the technology industry as it purports to be, since they will undoubtedly claim to have the grassroots support of our community regardless of whether that’s true or not.

Further Reading

And some related pieces from my own archives here:

  • The history and future of web protest, outlining how the tech industry needs to be more proactive after its initial success in fighting SOPA and PIPA. This is also echoed in Ignoring it won’t make it go away, where the reflexive libertarianism of Silicon Valley culture again rears its ugly head.
  • Zuckerberg’s history of being blinded by his privilege to the serious social and political consequences of his extremism on privacy and identity underpins The Facebook Reckoning. This reached its apotheosis two years later when Facebook made it official at the end of last year that users have no say in site governance policies, by ending user voting on its terms of service.
  • And as a broader look at ways we can impact policy in addition to direct lobbying, there’s How the 99% and the Tea Party can Occupy WhiteHouse.gov, which is about exactly what it sounds like.