Facebook's Zuckerberg Launches FWD.us Lobby Group: The More the Merrier?

By Peter Bernstein April 11, 2013

It is a political fact of life that money talks. While many in the established tech political action community are shaking their heads about the launch by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg of a brand spanking new lobbying organization, FWD.us, they should really be rejoicing. This is a case of the more the merrier and about role playing.  

Three is a role that large trade associations play in policy making by virtue of organizational heft. And, there is also the heavy hitter role which enables captains of commerce to personally open doors, bend ears and influence politicians. After all, politicians like it for ego as well as monetary reasons when celebrity executives come to call.

Based on the recognition of star power, you have to like the group Zuckerberg has assembled. It’s an all-star team of Silicon Valley luminaries that includes:

  • Joe Green, Zuckerberg's college roommate at Harvard and founder of Causes.com, who will be the president of FWD.us.
  • LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman
  • Investors John Doerr and Ron Conway
  • Major donors: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.

Not surprisingly, FWD.us was established as 501(c)(4) organization. Such organizations are very popular in the U.S. since they in theory exist exclusively for the promotion of “social welfare.” They can lobby for legislation, participate in political campaigns and elections, and most importantly, there is little transparency into their operations, which is why they have earned the term, “dark money.” 

FWD.us says its aim is to “promote policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy—including comprehensive immigration reform and education reform.”

The timing and mechanics of their entry into the lobbying business was quite precise. Zuckerberg clearly got good instructions from some of the best lobbyists and advisers money can buy, and all of the bases have been covered in terms of making sure there can be access to leaders in both parties. While not familiar to those outside of Washington, this is quite an impressive group. It includes support from former president Bill Clinton’s press secretary Joe Lockhart, who is a senior advisor and cofounder of the Glover Park Group; Republican consultant Jon Lerner; and Rob Jesmer, a partner at public affairs firm FP1 Strategies and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.  

Plus, outside lobbying will come from the powerful Washington insiders Democratic lobbyist John Michael Gonzalez of Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart, and Republican lobbyist Mark Isakowitz of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock.

Second, proving the point about celebrity status, and getting even added visibility for the group and its causes, Zuckerberg got an opinion piece in the Washington Post, where among other comments he noted, "As leaders of an industry that has benefited from this economic shift, we believe that we have a responsibility to work together to ensure that all members of our society gain from the rewards of the modern knowledge economy...Let’s embrace our future as a knowledge economy and help them — and all of us — reach our full potential."  Third, on the timing front, given that FWD.us’s first push is for immigration reform, this was all orchestrated clearly to coincide with the U.S. Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" announcement that they have reached a comprehensive solution to immigration reform, which is a high priority not only on tech industry executive minds, but also on those of politicians as a result of the electoral impact it will have in the coming years. 

As a former lobbyist in Washington, D.C., I admire the talent that has been assembled on the celebrity side of things as well as the support group. And like it or not, the ability to use not just this crowd’s ability to gain an audience with decision makers and sway them with the possibility of monetary and advertising support, but also the ability to rally the potential wisdom of the crowd, makes FWD.us a bit of a different animal than politicians are used to dealing with.

Immigration reform is an interesting first test of their power, but may not be compelling due to the broad interest in the subject and the prevailing direction of political headwinds that dictate something must and will be done, or the Republican party in particular could be in trouble, with a substantial segment of the population that were not fans of the party in the last election cycle. 

A better judge will likely be if their organization and its allies can get Congress in this age of austerity to invest education initiatives, and improve the math and science skills of younger generations, so they can compete successfully in a digital and connected world. In a word, FORWARD! How fast and how far will be interesting to watch, but my money’s on where the smart money has turned its attention. 

Edited by Braden Becker
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