Google, Microsoft, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and other digital heavyweights increasingly are borrowing a favorite technique from the world of politics: secret money.
These top tech executives and their companies are embracing stealth, not-for-profit campaigns that can advertise and advance their pet causes — from tax and immigration reform to new online privacy laws — without ever disclosing a single donation.
The groups are known by their tax designation, 501(c)(4), and until recently, they've been the domain of entrenched players such as Karl Rove and the Koch brothers. But interest on Capitol Hill in regulating the burgeoning tech sector has convinced Silicon Valley's power brokers they too must adopt a form of political advocacy that once would have been anathema to the Washington-wary industry.
The most prominent new example is FWD.us, the Zuckerberg-helmed collection of tech luminaries pumping millions of dollars into local television markets with ads promoting immigration reform to oil drilling. It joins a list of groups — from a Microsoft-backed immigration effort, to a Google-supported privacy campaign — that are also playing the D.C. secret-money game.
If anything, the evolution highlights something of an irony: Even as Zuckerberg and other tech titans proselytize openness, many have closed off any public access to the full extent of their influence operations.
"Just like we've seen the tech world get slowly into lobbying … now we're seeing them get deeper into the Washington game," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington