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The Conservative Inc. to Big Tech Pipeline

Money and people flow back and forth between Silicon Valley, D.C., and Beijing.

Section 230 has become a mainstay of our political news cycle, as Senator Josh Hawley and other Silicon Valley skeptics wage daily war on the controversial law which leaves Big Tech platforms immune to liability for content posted by third-parties on their sites. Hawley’s forceful condemnation of Big Tech’s special treatment by the government—despite the clear anti-conservative bias and progressive agenda of many of these companies—is a defining element of a particular, ascendant brand of conservatism.

But heated debates over Silicon Valley’s special protection precede the Missouri populist’s arrival on the Hill by years. One of the most memorable crusades against Section 230’s unintended consequences saw Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) leading the charge on the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act—a hard title to argue with—in 2017-18. The bill became law with overwhelming bipartisan support. Only two senators—unflinching libertarian Rand Paul (R-KY) and Section 230 coauthor Ron Wyden (D-OR)—voted against.

SESTA’s easy passage came despite the best efforts of Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google,  and suggested that these companies’ old way of operating in D.C. was no longer viable. For a long time, tech giants could count on strong alliances with the Democratic establishment and the progressive movement, together with the pro-business Republican Party’s overall aversion to regulation, to ensure general freedom from Washington interference. But a strong Republican House through most of the Obama years—followed by Republican control of all three federal branches after the 2016 elections, and a reconsideration of free-market ideology within the GOP—meant that Silicon Valley needed friends in Washington whose names weren’t followed by (D-CA).

The Google Transparency Project released a landmark report in December of 2019 detailing the way Google went about making those new friends. It hinges, in large part, on a single person: six-year employee Rachel Whetstone was promoted to senior vice president for communications and public policy in May of 2011—not long after a wave of Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. Whetstone is the granddaughter of Antony Fisher, founder of the libertarian mega-donor Atlas Network, and daughter of its current chairwoman. From the GTP report:

Shortly after Whetstone took on her new role, Google began making what would be annual donations to the group her grandfather founded. Google contributed between $25,000 and $99,999 to Atlas Network each year from 2012 to 2015. In 2016 and 2017, as scrutiny of the company intensified, Google upped its support to six figures, between $100,000 and $1 million, earning a spot in Atlas Network’s “Freedom Champions Circle.”

In 2018, Google was again giving less than $100,000 to Atlas Network. But by then, it was also directly funding many conservative groups within the network.

In all, the report found that “Google has given money to…at least 22 conservative and libertarian organizations, the GTP analysis shows. They include the American Conservative Union, American Legislative Exchange Council, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, and the Mercatus Center.” The report is worth reading in full.

It is no coincidence that infamously progressive corporate behemoth Google was throwing wads of cash at conservative groups at just the time that a majority Republican Congress was weighing legislation that might chip away at Google’s bottom line. Even limited liability for third-party content could cost Google millions, and opportunistic appeals to market-minded Republicans on grounds of freedom and limited government might save substantial amounts of money in the long run. 

But even this is just one small part of the bigger picture. Given SESTA’s landslide passage, massive donations to conservative institutions may not have been the winning strategy that Google had hoped. Now, as a renewed animus against Big Tech takes hold of D.C. conservatives, another strategy is gaining traction among powerful but anxious tech companies—one focused not on money, but on manpower.

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In April of 2019, the Senate Judiciary Committee—controlled by Republicans and chaired by Ted Cruz (R-TX)—rejected a Google witness for a hearing on free speech concerns on Big Tech platforms. The witness, Max Pappas, had just been hired by Google in March of 2017. Pappas was expected to make inroads into the conservative establishment. He had the background for it, after all: immediately before his arrival at Google, Pappas spent four years as chief economist and director of outreach for… Ted Cruz. Though this episode hardly worked out in Google’s favor, it’s indicative of the strategy that Google and other tech companies have been shifting toward in recent years: hiring staffers with strong connections in the D.C. conservative establishment, in hopes that those connections will prove more beneficial than impersonal donations to right-of-center nonprofits.

Pappas’ superiors, for instance, have resumes that ought to raise some eyebrows. Karan Bhatia is a vice president for government affairs and public policy at Google. He came to Google from GE, but before that he served as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative, among a number of other positions in the Bush administration. Bhatia, who heads up Google’s D.C. office, remains well known in the city’s conservative circles.

Another Google vice president for government affairs and public policy is even more intriguing. Mark Isakowitz has been at Google since October of 2019. Before that, he spent nearly five years as chief of staff to Sen. Rob Portman. The timeline is worth noting: in 2018, Isakowitz was chief of staff to a Republican senator pushing legislation that Google opposed with the full force of its lobbying machine; within a year, Isakowitz became a part of that machine himself. Other corporations are taking note, and testing out their own personnel-centered strategies.

Freddy Barnes spent six years as policy director for Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), during which time McCarthy was majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Before that, he spent two years on McCarthy’s floor team while the congressman was majority whip. As of June, Freddy Barnes is employed in U.S. public policy at TikTok, a viral social media company suspected, with its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance, of feeding user information to the Chinese government. This suspicion has inspired serious talk in the federal government of banning the platform altogether.

Derrick Dockery worked for three years as business and intergovernmental coalitions director for House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), following one year as communications and coalitions coordinator for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and two in communications for Rep. Ryan. As of June, Derrick Dockery is employed in U.S. government affairs at TikTok—rejoining Barnes, with whom he overlapped on Capitol Hill for six years (each serving one of the two highest-ranking members of the House).

David Urban was a senior adviser to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and a key player in both the Republican National Convention that year and Trump’s general election victory in Pennsylvania. Urban has been tapped for Trump’s 2020 Advisory Committee, but the veteran politico will have to split his time between getting the president reelected and representing Chinese corporate interests: as of January, Urban’s lobbying firm, American Continental Group, is on the take from TikTok.

These guys are relative newcomers to the scene compared to other Conservative Inc. transplants in Big Tech—especially Chinese tech. Donald J. Morrissey has spent over 9 years heading up U.S. government affairs for Huawei, another Chinese corporation suspected of unsavory ties to the government in Beijing. Before taking over lobbying for the foreign tech giant—whose CEO is a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army—Morrissey worked on the staff of multiple Republican congressmen, as well as in other notable roles in the D.C. conservative establishment. Among other positions, he was the legislative director of the American Conservative Union.

Nor are these machinations limited to the United States. One of Huawei’s top men in Canada is 36-year-old lawyer Alykhan Velshi. Velshi’s colorful career includes government posts, stints at the neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a host of hawkish op-eds at a multitude of outlets, and a year at the American Enterprise Institute.

These are some of the big fish, but the catalogue of Hill and nonprofit staffers who have landed in the tech world is enormous. Former Steve King aide Robert Babcock is lobbying for Google. Amazon lobbyist Darren Achord spent nearly a decade on the Hill working for Republican politicians, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), whom he served as deputy chief of staff while Scalise was majority whip. The list goes on.

Often, the efforts at personal networking have been targeted and direct. Such was the case with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). Once one of Google’s most vocal critics in Washington, the chairman of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee is now all but silent on Big Tech, and at times even openly defensive of it. This is no coincidence: the Tech Transparency Project has shed light on a concerted effort by Google to curry favor with Lee. Besides substantial donations—GTP counted at least $73,600 from tech-affiliated donors for Lee’s 2016 reelection campaign—tech interests began actively recruiting personnel from Lee’s circle. Max Pappas had been a Lee ally, particularly in his time as executive director of FreedomWorks PAC. Bryson Bachman had been Lee’s chief counsel on the antitrust subcommittee; he was hired by Amazon in 2018. Meanwhile, Sen. Lee’s chief counsel on the judiciary committee, Mike Lemon, went on to become a senior director at the Internet Association.

The Internet Association is worth reflecting on here. It was formed in 2012, when the big players in Silicon Valley came together to form a lobbying group that would represent their shared interests in Washington. Google, as always, was a leader in the field—this was around the same time that the company was making its connections with the Atlas Network and other institutions of the right. Other giants like Amazon and Facebook were there at the inception, and the group quickly ballooned from 14 members to 40.

This rapid growth was thanks, in large part, to the success of its president and CEO, Michael Beckerman. Beckerman came to the job with plenty of relevant experience: roughly 12 years on Capitol Hill, in positions that included deputy staff director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee (i.e., the legislative body charged with the direction of U.S. internet policy) and chief policy adviser to the committee chair, Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI). For eight years, from 2012-2020, Beckerman used the skills and knowledge he had learned at the center of GOP leadership to navigate the ins and outs of tech policy in D.C., providing invaluable insight to Silicon Valley corporate interests. His new employers must be hopeful that the longtime D.C. power-player can bring that same inside perspective to their playbook in the capital.

As of this March, Beckerman is head of U.S. public policy at TikTok.

about the author

Declan Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative.

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