Silicon Valley Group's Political Effort Causes Uproar

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"Move fast and break things" has been the motto at Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook, embodying the Silicon Valley ethos of unapologetically finding new ways to solve old problems. His latest foray into politics in Washington, however, might be characterized as "Move fast, play hardball and be prepared for blowback."

Fwd.Us, the new nonprofit advocacy group created by Mr. Zuckerberg and several technology executives and investors to push for an overhaul of immigration law, has bankrolled television ads endorsing the conservative stands taken by three lawmakers, prompting an outcry from liberal groups and a call to withhold advertisements from Facebook.

The uproar, some say, will be a lesson for Silicon Valley companies as they try to influence emotional political issues like immigration. But the group's supporters brashly say they were ready for the reaction.

"Our advertising decisions are being made by a very smart team of political operatives who know that passing major reform will require some different and innovative tactics," Jim Breyer, a venture capitalist with Accel Partners and a contributor to the cause, said in an e-mailed statement. "I'm proud to support Fwd.Us as they work to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

The group has faced the most vocal criticism for television advertisements sponsored by its two subsidiaries, which are known as Americans for Conservative Action and Council for American Job Growth. One of those spots takes swipes at President Obama's health policies. Another lauds the Keystone XL pipeline, fiercely opposed by many environmental groups.

Those TV spots, which ran in several states for a week, prompted strong reaction from a coalition of liberal organizations that includes the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and MoveOn.org. They announced earlier this week that they would suspend buying advertisements on Facebook, which they acknowledged was meant to send a message and would have little economic impact on the company.

Cathy Duvall, director of strategic partnerships at the Sierra Club, said her group was especially disappointed to see the technology industry adopt a strategy that was more typical of old-fashioned, brass-knuckled Washington lobbying.

"When the ads came out they were politics as usual and divisive and pitting one issue against another," Ms. Duvall said. "We were really surprised that Silicon Valley would be moving into the political space by doing the worst of business-as-usual politics."

Fwd.Us, like other industry-backed interest groups, has said very little about how much money it has raised and from whom, except to name contributors on its Web site. It would say only that it spent in the "seven figures" on the television spots.

The ads are particularly surprising considering some of the other backers. John Doerr, a venture capitalist, is known for his investments in clean technology companies, and his wife, Ann, has been a major donor to environmental causes.

Reid Hoffman has described himself as "progressive" in an essay posted recently on LinkedIn, a company that he founded.

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, in 2010 backed an effort not to roll back California's global warming law. None of them returned calls and e-mails requesting comment for this article, referring instead to Fwd.Us operatives in Washington.

"We recognize that not everyone will always agree with or be pleased by our strategy," said Kate Hansen, a spokeswoman for Fwd.Us. "Fwd.Us remains totally committed to support a bipartisan policy agenda that will boot the knowledge economy, including comprehensive immigration reform."

For his part, Mr. Zuckerberg has covered his political bases. He recently held a fund-raiser for Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., and Facebook has hired several former White House and Congressional aides to work in its Washington office.

Mr. Zuckerberg has declined requests to be interviewed about Fwd.Us.

Jim Manley, a former chief spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said that the ads may have achieved their goal, but that Mr. Zuckerberg should learn from the negative reaction.

"He is finding out it can be very, very problematic to get your company involved in hot-button social issues," said Mr. Manley, who now directs the communications practice at the Washington lobbying and public relations firm Quinn Gillespie. "There is going to be blowback. You are going to pay a price for it."

Fwd.Us has been openly criticized by others in Silicon Valley. Josh Miller, founder of a start-up called Branch, denounced what he called the group's "questionable lobbying practices" and said he was disappointed that the group had not been transparent about its intentions.

"More discouragingly, the leaders of the technology industry (and of FWD.us) have built their careers on bringing meaningful change to the world," he wrote in a BuzzFeed opinion piece. "They should be doing the same in Washington."

Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist who finances clean energy companies and who was once a major partner at Mr. Doerr's investment firm, said on Twitter over the weekend: "Will Fwd.us prostitute climate destruction & other values to get a few engineers hired & get immigration reform?"

One advocacy group called CredoAction, based in San Francisco, tried to use Facebook ads to draw attention to the Keystone XL pipeline TV spot sponsored by Fwd.Us. The ads were prohibited by Facebook officials, because the company's terms of service prohibit using Mr. Zuckerberg's image in another organization's ad. A coalition of organizations has also created a Facebook group to agitate against Fwd.Us.

Still, others say the ads signal a calculated pragmatism. Fwd.Us is led by experienced political operatives, including Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton Administration official, and Rob Jesmer, a former Republican Senate political adviser. One executive involved in the effort said the advertisements were vetted with executives backing it -- and that the executives realized before they were shown that they might alienate certain liberal audiences. But the group made a decision to back both Democrats and Republicans who support the immigration bill in order to get it passed.

"We did not just fall off the turnip truck," the executive said. "There are a lot of people involved in these organizations that have been involved in politics for a really long time."

The group e-mailed statements from prominent backers, including a former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, who argued that Fwd.Us needs to be "disruptive" in politics, as in commerce.

"In order to push Washington to do something different and pass major legislation like comprehensive immigration reform, groups like Fwd.Us can't just do the same thing and expect different results," he said. "As part of our work, we're using a wide variety of tactics, some of which may ruffle some feathers, but we believe the passage of the bill will be worth it."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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