Having solved the problem of people not wasting enough time on the internet, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is now tackling his first real-world political cause: immigration reform. With a slick new non-profit group funded by tech millionaires, Zuckerberg is rallying Silicon Valley's elite into a political force they hope might one day rival Wall Street. Zuckerberg's political moves are of a piece with his career as a tech mogul: hugely ambitious, painfully awkward, entirely self-interested, and surprisingly successful. And he's just getting started.
Earlier this month, Zuckerberg unveiled the vehicle of his political will: FWD.us, a bipartisan, non-profit political advocacy group that sounds like an iPhone app. FWD.us has attracted big names from both politics and technology, including former Clinton White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, Romney adviser Dan Senor, LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman, and Google chairman Eric Schmidt. The group hopes to raise $50 million to fund its lobbying for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, which is currently making its way through Congress.
Why immigration? We need those smart foreign brains: In a Washington Post op-ed announcing FWD.us, Zuckerberg wrote that "in a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our country." To that end, FWD.us says on its website it aims to "establish a streamlined process for admitting future workers" and increase the number of H-1B visas that let companies hire high-skilled foreign workers to "continue to promote innovation and meet our workforce needs."
The implicit argument behind FWD.us is that the U.S. doesn't have enough high-skilled domestic workers to meet tech companies' needs. This is a myth, and Zuckerberg and FWD.us are just the latest tech players to promote it. In fact there is no shortage of domestic IT workers, as shown in a new study from the Economic Policy Institute. While there is an unusually low unemployment rate among American tech workers (3%), they haven't enjoyed the large salary increases that would signal a shortage. There is also little evidence that the foreign workers tech companies hire are any better than Americans. The real reason tech companies want to hire more high-skilled immigrants is that they can pay them less than Americans, since immigrants are in a more economically precarious position. More than 80 percent of workers hired under the H-1B program are paid less than their American counterparts, according to the EPI. This kind of outsourcing benefits tech companies while hurting domestic tech workers.
The self-serving motives behind Zuckerberg's immigration reform push can be seen clearly in Facebook's corporate lobbying efforts. As FWD.us promotes high-minded ideals of openness and opportunity, Facebook's lobbying firms have been doing the dirty work of making sure immigration reform means they can freely hire high-skilled immigrants for less money than their American counterparts. Specifically, Facebook has been trying to insert language into the Senate immigration bill to eliminate a requirement that American companies make a "good faith" effort to hire Americans before looking abroad, according to the Washington Post. And Facebook wants to axe rules that would require companies to pay these foreign workers more. Facebook isn't just a fan of outsourcing its high-skilled jobs: Last year we reported that much of Facebook's dirty and unpleasant content moderation was done by outsourced third-world workers making as little as $1 an hour.
Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy told the Post, "The real goal is to put Zuckerberg and Facebook front and center with the Washington elite … to better extinguish a growing call to regulate how his company does business.”
So FWD.us is just another case of a savvy businessman wielding political clout for his financial benefit. But how FWD.us and Zuckerberg have done this is worth considering as a model of tech industry political activism to come. FWD.us demonstrates a bizarre wedding of Silicon Valley idealism with the tepid realities of interest politics. The two worlds collided last week when news stories went viral revealing that the group had funded ads trashing Obama and praising oil drilling in the Arctic. One ad supporting South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham slammed Obamacare and the president's "wasteful stimulus spending." The liberal blogosphere was shocked: The same Mark Zuckerberg who once feted Obama in Silicon Valley and counts Corey Booker as a bff now sounded like a long lost Koch Brother.
While the ad was funded by Zuckerberg's group, it didn't represent a right-wing turn for the politically ambiguous mogul. It was a tactical strike in his immigration reform campaign. The ad was made by a subsidiary group of FWD.us called Americans For a Conservative Direction. Lindsay Graham is one of the few Republican supporters of the Senate immigration reform bill, and the ad is meant to bolster Graham's conservative bona fides so he can push the largely Democrat-backed immigration bill without seeming like a softy. If that means bad-mouthing Obama, so be it.
After the ad went viral, FWD.us tried to placate angry liberals by pointing out that the group had also created a left-leaning organization, the Council for American Job Growth, to support liberal immigration reform backers. A FWD.us spokesperson told ThinkProgress that "maintaining two separate entities… to support elected officials across the political spectrum—separately—means that we can more effectively communicate with targeted audience of their constituents." This is politics, Facebook-style: pandering as personalized as your Facebook Newsfeed! It's also about as craven as Washington gets. Even the Koch brothers lacked the devious ingenuity to back two competing teams, as BuzzFeed's Ben Smith pointed out on Twitter. They only disingenuously funded the Tea Party.
The ad fracas was not even the weirdest moment in FWD.us' brief history. Days before it launched, Politico obtained an enthusiastically creepy memo FWD.us president Joe Green sent to potential supporters that sounded like a dispatch from North Korea's propaganda ministry. While the bloviating of the tech elite sounds just a bit ridiculous in blog posts by venture capitalists pumping a new mobile payment service, it takes a more sinister tone when applied to politics.
Green's memo boasted that "technology executives would use their companies to 'control the avenues of distribution' for a political message in support of their efforts," according to Politico. In case the implications of that statement were unclear, the memo also listed three reasons why the tech industry can become "one of the most powerful voices" in politics:
1: We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals. We saw the tip of the iceberg with SOPA/PIPA.
2: Our voice carries a lot of weight because we are broadly popular with Americans.
3. We have individuals with a lot of money. If deployed properly this can have huge influence in the current campaign finance environment.
We control massive distribution channels is something that would issue from a Facebook lackey's mouth in the most conspiracy-addled daydream of an infowars.com power-user. And yet here is Green, Mark Zuckerberg's old Harvard roommate, essentially promoting technology-enabled subliminal messaging in a confidential memo to the tech elite.
Green said in a statement that his language was "poorly chosen" and gave "a misimpression of the views and aspirations of this organization and those associated with." But he made a very similar pitch Monday in a paid promotional presentation to the assembled geeks and entrepreneurs of the TechCrunch Distrupt conference in New York City:
"This is one of those urgent policy problems that demonstrates how broken Washington D.C. is," he said, "and where we can apply our patented tech community innovation skills."
This framing is important because as tech companies become bigger political players they're likely going to adopt a similar message. Last year, the tech industry spent $132.5 million on lobbying efforts, "placing them among the top lobbying sectors in the Capitol," according to the Washington Post. Many of these companies are taking the same route as Zuckerberg, creating non-profit "stealth PACS" that allow them to wield political influence in the name of some social good without disclosing their donors.
For all its foibles, FWD.us is unique in how it rallies Silicon Valley as a community, flattering geeks' overblown sense of power while attempting to make that power a reality. Its true innovation is recasting the mundane political work of lobbying for laws that favor corporations as an exciting social movement to "fix" Washington with innovative new political tools. Joe Green, president of FWD.us, is also an organizer of the March for Innovation, "a virtual march on Washington… to push for smart, comprehensive immigration reform to attract and keep the best and brightest to fuel innovation." In other words—you, too, can sign up for an email list to tell Congress you want less restrictions on tech companies' quest to maximize profits! It's the Kony2012 of cyberlibertarianism.
The tech writer Evgeny Morozov has diagnosed the impetus of Silicon Valley to "fix" complex problems like immigration through technology as solutionism, "an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are 'solvable' with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal." Morozov warns such a mindset leads to simplistic solutions that can do more harm than good. Such is the case with Zuckerberg and his tech pals' immigration reform efforts. Their favored solution to the problem of immigration is lifting restrictions that prevent them from hiring more lower-paid foreign workers. No amount of innovation should mask this very old fashioned desire.