Silicon Valley’s longtime voice in D.C. is in disarray.
The Internet Association has been shedding staff, losing influence on Capitol Hill and shrinking to near-obscurity in media coverage of tech policy debates in Washington, even as the industry faces controversies ranging from alleged monopolization to privacy to how it treats its legions of workers.
The declining prominence of IA, a nine-year-old group that used to call itself “the unified voice of the internet economy,” comes as a larger fragmentation is splitting the tech industry’s lobbying efforts into factions, according to more than a dozen current and former employees, congressional aides and tech company employees who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity. But they said the association’s internal dysfunction has also diminished its impact in Congress and in public debates about Silicon Valley’s expanding array of lawsuits, legislation and regulatory threats.
In short, “they’re irrelevant,” one Democratic congressional aide said.
In its place, other tech-focused advocacy groups — including a new startup headed by a former Google executive — have stepped into the void to speak for the companies on antitrust, a hot policy topic that IA declines to weigh in on.
The change in IA’s stature has become apparent even well outside the Beltway. Seattle-based researcher Margaret O’Mara said tech lobbying has entered a “company-driven” era in which more overarching advocacy groups are playing a diminished role. That’s in contrast to sectors such as oil and gas or gun manufacturing, which still rely heavily on their trade associations in the capital.
“When the Internet Association was started, you could see there was common ground, issues of principle and issues of policy that these companies all came down on the same side,” said O’Mara, a University of Washington professor who focuses on the relationship between D.C. and Silicon Valley. “Now, it’s quite different.”
‘Transitions are not easy’
It’s a striking comedown for a group that, at its peak, held lavish events and dinners, including a 2017 gala attended by then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and a 2019 awards ceremony in Union Station featuring appearances by both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-Trump adviser Ivanka Trump (plus a cameo by her husband, Jared Kushner).
IA was widely seen as a trusted advocate for the major tech companies, boasting its flashy yellow branding on policy papers and during staff briefings in Congress.
The group brokered the deal with lawmakers that led to a more tech-friendly version of an online sex trafficking law known as FOSTA-SESTA (H.R. 1865 (115)), one of the only times Congress has seriously regulated the internet industry since the 1990s. Former association CEO Michael Beckerman, who built the group from scratch, was making almost $1 million per year by the time he left in February 2020 for a job at TikTok, according to the group’s most recent tax filings. (In one sign of his outsize presence, Beckerman once posed for Modern Luxury’s “Men of Style” issue in $5,000 shoes and a $1,250 custom-made suit.)
IA still boasts a roster of 41 member companies, including trillion-dollar colossuses Google, Amazon and Facebook, although several of them are considering giving significantly less money to the group annually, according to two people familiar with the discussions. The group’s total revenue was around $10 million in 2019.
In addition to other factors, such as escalating competition among the group’s member companies, nine of the people who spoke to POLITICO attributed its woes to staff unhappiness with CEO Dane Snowden, who took over in February after a nearly yearlong search following Beckerman’s departure. Eight of these people said Snowden and his executive team have sidelined and aggravated longtime experts within the organization with a top-down leadership style that staff described as disrespectful.
In an interview Thursday, Snowden acknowledged that “transitions are not easy” but added, “I see this as an organization that’s growing.”
Snowden said his goal is for the association to be seen as a “trusted source and effective advocate for the internet industry.” And one of his major priorities will be to build out IA’s federal lobbying apparatus, which he described as previously “dormant.”
“We had very limited federal advocates,” Snowden said. “A lot of what we did in the past was, as I understand it, was focus [on] our policy shop. Now we’re focusing on our government relations shop.”
Christina Martin, IA’s senior vice president of global communications and public affairs, said in a statement to POLITICO that the group’s “new leader and new direction” will yield “an organization that is more strategic, more impactful.”
“IA 2.0 will be ready to champion and defend the internet industry as it faces countless challenges in the midst of Techlash,” she said.
For now, though, the group has continued to lose personnel, with a fifth of its 24-person staff resigning since the beginning of June, according to former staffers and an analysis of its careers page. The group has not had layoffs, but several people, including IA’s top Republican lobbyist, are leaving without securing another job first. Key positions on the communications and lobbying teams have remained vacant for months, and the organization’s productivity has tumbled, the IA staffers said.
“I don’t know anyone who isn’t looking for another job,” said one former IA employee.
Employees insisted the problems go deeper than typical growing pains under a new leader.
The personnel churn preceded Snowden as well: IA saw five resignations during a comparable six-month period in 2020, including people who left for Facebook, Amazon, TikTok and Twitter. The organization’s staff has seen almost 100 percent turnover since four years ago, according to an analysis of IA’s careers page. (The group has also hired 11 new people over the last 17 months.)
Several of IA’s major member companies have been crunching numbers to assess whether they want to keep giving the same amount of money to the association as they lean more heavily on their own lobbying operations, according to two people familiar with the dynamics who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay internal conversations. Google, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft pay between $800,000 and $1 million annually for their IA memberships, according to four people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak about numbers that the group keeps confidential.
The staff members said the association’s struggles in part emerge from tensions with Snowden, a former telecom trade association executive who, according to four former employees, is known to yell at staffers and dismiss the way IA has conducted business for years. (The organization did not comment when POLITICO asked for a response to the accusation about yelling.)
Current and former staffers described mounting frustration with other top executives as well, with six people saying they and Snowden dismiss the views of not just the IA policy staff but also those of member companies on issues such as content moderation and privacy.
Snowden’s background is mainly in telecom and issues related to the Federal Communications Commission; he worked previously as the chief operating officer at NCTA, the Internet & Television Association, and held posts at CTIA, The Wireless Association, as well as the FCC. On policy issues such as net neutrality, the telecom industry has traditionally found itself at odds with the tech industry.
The board placed an emphasis on previous association management experience over experience with major tech policy issues, such as how to moderate content online, when selecting a new CEO, according to an IA board member.
“Dane, he doesn’t know tech policy but he’s been in the general world and no one was as qualified as he was in association management,” said the IA board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. The board member said he is happy with Snowden’s performance so far.
“I think he’s done exactly what we wanted him to do, which is step in and provide a fresh perspective,” the member said, adding that the board hopes to “focus” IA’s mission more narrowly.
Whereas Beckerman took a hands-off approach, allowing his 20- and 30-something employees to run the shop in an entrepreneurial, Silicon Valley-esque style, Snowden promotes a more traditional, slow-moving approach, seven former and current staffers said. He’s claimed a “first right of refusal” over all IA statements and events, and has made only two public appearances since he started at the beginning of the year.
Beckerman was also known for his frequent appearances on Capitol Hill, where he took fire from all sides as he defended the “innovation” of the internet. In contrast, Snowden has yet to appear publicly before Congress and declined a last-minute invitation to testify in May during a Senate hearing on children’s privacy. (Instead, IA sent a lengthy letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee detailing member companies’ efforts to protect minors online.) Snowden has placed a priority on meeting one-on-one with members of Congress, holding 11 meetings with key lawmakers and more being scheduled.
Snowden has personally displayed some discomfort with the online world itself, four people said. They said he and members of his leadership team ask staff to print out many of IA’s communications rather than share them digitally.
“I don’t personally feel that it aligns with an organization that’s representing internet companies to be printing out everything and using a fax machine,” said one former IA employee.
And IA’s media coverage has fallen off a cliff in recent months, staff said — partially because former President Donald Trump is no longer driving media attention with his constant criticism of the industry, but partly because IA has been less active in inserting its perspective into the news cycles.
Tension among tech’s heavyweights
But the conflicts go even deeper. Competition among Facebook, Google and Amazon is fiercer than ever, as they vie with each other in areas like cloud computing and artificial intelligence. That makes the association’s consensus-driven model for making decisions increasingly untenable, said two people familiar with the association’s dynamics.
“I would argue that for many members, especially the large members, it appears to be in their interest to gridlock IA,” said one person familiar with internal dynamics at the association. The person added that “this should be laid at the feet of the board of directors,” a body whose members include government relations staff from companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft as well as smaller rivals like Snap and Spotify.
“These companies … are unwilling to work together in a way that will make everybody’s life better, and they’re scuttling the one successful thing that they had outside their own organizations that was willing to stand in the way of bad stuff happening,” the person said.
The companies are taking vastly different approaches to some of the major policy discussions of the day.
Facebook, for instance, has come out in support of making changes to tech’s much-prized legal liability shield, enshrined in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act — despite the risk that legal tinkering could expose online companies to lawsuits for hosting or taking down users’ content. Other IA members see this as Facebook throwing them under the bus. After all, the giant social network has vast armies of lawyers and could probably afford some tweaks to Section 230 that smaller internet companies couldn’t.
In response, a group of small-to-medium sized IA member companies including Etsy and Snap last year formed Internet Works, a coalition to advocate with one voice against Section 230 changes.
“Some of those companies perceived IA as being too beholden to Facebook’s view of compromising on 230, which is not what the small companies want,” said one person familiar with the dynamics. “That was very much a reason behind that splinter group.”
Absence on antitrust
Though IA’s tagline used to be “the unified voice of the internet economy,” that slogan has been scrubbed from many of its public-facing platforms, including pages on its website and social media, in recent months. One person familiar with IA’s thinking said the association hopes to reorient to emphasize “the value of the industry, tech’s ability to make people’s lives better, and bringing policy positions to life.”
Perhaps most importantly, IA as a matter of policy does not weigh in on the most pressing issue facing the big tech companies today — antitrust.
Because IA is a coalition of small and large companies, with vastly different perspectives on the topic, it declared from its founding in 2012 that it would not lobby on competition-related issues. That’s a real impediment as Congress gets serious about passing a set of sweeping antitrust bills that could fundamentally change how Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple do business, while pleasing smaller rivals like Yelp and Spotify.
IA hasn’t issued any statements about the House’s package of six bipartisan antitrust bills since the Judiciary Committee approved them last month. It even sat out the debate on bills that only tangentially relate to antitrust, such as one that would make it easier for users to take their data from one platform to another.
On the plus side, the group is staffing up. After months without a Democratic lobbyist since the departure of Michael Bloom, a longtime lobbyist who left for TikTok last July, IA recently hired former House Democratic staffer Bo Morris as director of federal government affairs.
Snowden, meanwhile, is restructuring some of the basic ways that IA does business. This includes pivoting away from a structure that emphasizes working groups made up of member companies and toward a centralized model that puts IA’s government affairs teams in charge of strategy.
But it’s an open question whether IA can regain its former prominence. In IA’s absence, several of the tech industry’s other trade groups, such as NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association, have stepped up to advocate for the companies on competition issues. Chamber of Progress, a new tech-funded group run by former Google executive Adam Kovacevich, has been capturing a lot of the media attention that used to go to IA.
In addition, the big tech companies have each been building up their own lobbying shops to advocate for their interests. Congressional aides said that when they want to get the perspective of one of the major tech companies, they’re far likelier to go to the companies individually.
It’s a risky strategy — especially in Washington, where there’s strength in unity when it comes to beating back industry-wide government crackdowns. And the frustration from some in the industry with IA’s performance is only mounting.
“We’re writing the rules to the internet — and the association in charge of speaking for the internet is nowhere to be found,” said one member company employee.