Technology companies keep giving us wondrous new tools, many of which give people a chance to get more involved in democracy, from local school policies to national politics.
A number of those companies are increasing their own participation, too, but they're doing it the old-fashioned way: giving millions of dollars to political campaigns and spending hundreds of millions more for lobbying state and federal legislative and executive branches.
No longer able to view government as a pesky annoyance, as they did in the first half of the 1990s, tech companies have embraced politics with the aggressiveness they bring to their own industry.
It's instructive and fitting to use some of the tools the tech folks gave us to track what they've been up to.
For those who want to do it at home, a couple of Web sites collect and present data from the Federal Election Commission, to which campaigns must report their contributions and companies must register their lobbying activities. The FEC does a pretty nice job on its own site (www.fec.gov), but my favorite is operated by the Center for Responsive Politics, at the aptly addressed www.opensecrets.org.
The site allows you many ways to slice the information -- by donor, by recipient, by industry. It shows charts and graphs of party preferences, and much of the data goes back to the 1990 elections.
So far, the center's information covers only through mid-October, so end-of-campaign donations are yet to be accounted for. But some intriguing trends have been established.
According to the center's data, computer hardware, software and Internet companies contributed $19.4 million in the 2002 election cycle, ranking eighth among industries.
Those donations jumped from $9.8 million in 1998, the last non-presidential federal election, when the industry ranked 25th. In the presidential election year of 2000, the industry spent $40.8 million, $30.5 million more than it gave in 1996.
The totals reflect contributions from the companies, their employees and family members, and corporate political action committees. Many of the donations qualify as "soft money," going to political parties rather than individual candidates. The contributions also can be goods and services instead of cash.
Telecommunications companies, including the local and long-distance phone companies and wireless and satellite service providers, gave $22.26 million, up from $19.2 million in 1998. Those companies gave $36.4 million in the 2000 cycle.
Who are the heavyweights? In the computer and Internet sector, Microsoft Corp. has been the biggest contributor since the 1998 cycle, about when the Clinton administration's Justice Department and more than 20 states filed their antitrust suit against the company.
In 1996, the software giant gave $245,474, with 54 percent going to Democrats, and it came back in 1998 as the largest tech contributor, giving $1.36 million. Of that total, 64 percent went to Republicans.
Microsoft increased its contributions in the 2000 cycle to $4.67 million, and it gave $3 million in the 2002 period, with nearly two-thirds again going to Republicans. No other major tech corporation contributed more than $575,000 in the 2002 period.
Joining Microsoft in preferring Republicans were several other major tech firms, including Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp., Oracle Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Gateway Inc., Electronic Data Systems Corp. and Siebel Systems Inc. AOL Time Warner Inc. was the major exception, contributing $2.2 million in 2000 and $284,000 in the most recent period, with most going to Democrats.
The Republicans were counterbalanced in the most recent cycle by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Steven Kirsch, who made his fortune founding Infoseek, an Internet search engine. Now chief executive of his latest start-up, Propel Software Corp., Kirsch gave $3.36 million to Democrats in the 2002 cycle, making him the top tech-company donor.
When it comes to lobbying, Microsoft also leads the tech pack. From January 2000 to mid-2002, the company spent $16.1 million on federal lobbying, according to PoliticalMoneyLine (www.tray.com). Intel spent $12.2 million.
The major telephone carriers, amid legislative battles over Internet access policy, spent comparably.
What has all this largess achieved?
Many of the technology companies share goals, such as trade-promotion authority, increased tax depreciation of tech equipment, relaxation of tech-export controls and not requiring stock options to be accounted for as expenses. So far, the companies have been successful in these areas.
Other issues are thornier, often dividing technology companies and telecommunications providers. The entertainment industry, which contributes more than either of the other two, also is increasingly at odds with the tech industry on issues involving digital rights.
And all of these groups have a ways to go before they catch the contribution leaders for the recent election cycle: the lawyers and law firms that contributed $62.48 million.