In 2004, when Barack Obama was running for the U.S. Senate, he made his first visit to Google’s campus and saw firsthand how a search on the Internet worked. It left such a strong impression that he returned during his first presidential run vowing to protect the industry.
Now, near the end of his administration, the extent of Obama’s commitment to Silicon Valley has become clear. And nowhere is that more evident than net neutrality, an issue where the president pressured the government to pass regulations with major implications for how consumers experience the Internet.
The rules, passed Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission, limit Internet providers from auctioning off the fastest download speeds to the highest bidders, all but ensuring that Web firms — not cable companies — will retain control of what consumers see on their browsers. It marked a major win for Silicon Valley, an industry that has built a close relationship with the president and his staff over the last six years.
The affinity between the White House and the tech industry has enriched Obama’s campaigns through donations, and it has presented lucrative opportunities for staffers who leave for the private sector.
On Thursday, former White House press secretary Jay Carney joined Amazon as its senior vice president for worldwide corporate affairs. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe runs policy and strategy for Uber, the car service start-up. And several other former administration officials are peppered throughout Silicon Valley in various positions, lobbying on important policy issues related to taxes, consumer privacy and more.
History may view Obama as the first tech president, a leader who began his term clutching a BlackBerry and in every step along the way has embraced an industry that has evolved into a powerful force in politics and policy. In addition to net neutrality, Obama has supported immigration reforms favored by tech firms such as Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft and decried by labor unions. He has pushed for patent reforms that Google and Apple have championed. The president even sided with the tech industry — and against dependable Democratic allies in Hollywood — to block a copyright bill in early 2012.
But Obama’s close ties with Silicon Valley have rankled some conservatives and rival businesses, who say tech companies have grown too powerful to go unchecked.
“For the president to come out on net neutrality as forcefully as he did and interfere with an independent regulatory agency isn’t good governance and, I think, in part, was done to be supportive to friends,” said Jeffrey Eisenach, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “There is no question the presidency is more closely aligned with Silicon Valley, just as George W. Bush was more aligned with oil and manufacturing. You are who you represent.”
The relationship between the White House and Silicon Valley isn’t without tension. The tech industry howled when it was revealed that the National Security Agency was conducting a massive surveillance program on Web users. And some tech executives gripe privately that Obama’s support of patent and immigration reforms hasn’t translated into new legislation that can directly help their businesses.
“This is the first administration that tried to get tech right, and he is still widely loved by the tech community,” said Marvin Ammori, an attorney who represents tech companies, including Google and DropBox, and has long fought for net neutrality rules. “But it’s a mixed bag. Tech CEOs are still really frustrated with surveillance, and it took a long time to finally get to where we are on net neutrality.”
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an interview that “there’s a lot of cultural affinity between Obamaland and Silicon Valley” because the 2008 campaign resembled a start-up, and Obama “was the first president who came in as a very active Internet user, just by virtue of the time when he was elected.”
He added: “One of the reasons so many former administration officials have ended up in Silicon Valley is you find a lot of the same ‘yes we can’ mentality out there, so it’s a comfort level with it.” But, he said, the two sides don’t move in lockstep. “There’s certainly not a hundred percent agreement between our agenda and the agenda of the tech industry,” Pfeiffer said. “That’s standard, and to be expected, and that will continue over time.”
Danny Weitzner, former deputy chief technology officer in charge of Internet policy for the White House, said that the industry has also benefited from a groundswell of popular interest in tech issues as never before. “It’s not like telecom and the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] forgot how to lobby,” Weitzner said. “At the end of the day, the policy process is made up of an assessment of various interests.”
A shared worldview
Obama’s close relationship with Silicon Valley began with his first presidential campaign, when he was an upstart candidate hoping to challenge more established Democrats with the aid of a loose network of tech allies.
Wade Randlett, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and prominent Democratic donor, said the president’s campaign made it clear in early 2007 that “the campaign and the president believed you could beat the system using technology.”
“That’s what made Silicon Valley love him: betting the whole campaign on the principle that disruptive tech can take down an unbeatable giant,” Randlett said. “That’s the core of the belief system out here.”
From the beginning, Obama’s campaign team drew tech experts including Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, who helped create Obama’s online campaign platform. Google’s former vice president of global policy, Andrew McLaughlin, worked on his tech policy agenda and later joined the administration as a deputy to the chief technology officer.
And Obama has drawn huge donations from Silicon Valley for the Democratic Party. Salesforce.com chief executive Mark Benioff, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer have hosted fundraisers that cost as much as $35,000 a plate.
Over his two terms, Obama has also frequently turned to Silicon Valley talent for top posts. Former deputy chief technology officer Nicole Wong was an executive at both Google and Twitter. The current chief technology officer, Megan Smith, came from Google. The director of the patent and trademark office, Michelle K. Lee, was an intellectual property attorney for Google.
In September, former White House chief technology officer Todd Park started working as Obama’s technology adviser out in Silicon Valley to tap into the area’s thinking and help lure other tech experts into the federal government. In announcing Park’s new appointment, Obama said that he would “look forward to his continuing to help us deploy the best people and ideas from the tech community in the service of the American people.”
Although a handful of officials from previous administrations have joined high-tech firms in the past, there have been “orders of magnitude greater penetration” under Obama, Randlett said, where figures such as Plouffe have taken the campaign’s tactics to the private sector. “In the past, it was in one direction.”
Facebook has hired several former White House officials, including Marne Levine, who was chief of staff for former National Economic Council director Lawrence H. Summers. Louisa Terrell, who now works at the FCC, joined Facebook after serving as legal counsel to Obama.
Airbnb has three White House press office alumni: Clark Stevens as its global head of strategic safety initiatives and Nick Papas and Courtney O’Donnell at its communications team. A fourth former Obama staffer, Marie Aberger, recently left the firm.
The mobile payment company Square hired the then-acting U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios J. Marantis in 2013 to head its international government, regulatory and policy shop, while two of its communications managers, Colleen Murray and Semonti Stephens, worked at the Treasury Department and the first lady’s office, respectively.
And throughout Obama’s six years in office, the administration has leaned on Silicon Valley types for help. When the rollout of HealthCare.gov stumbled in the fall of 2013, the White House enlisted the help of Mikey Dickerson, who worked on site reliability at Google for 8½ years, to help overhaul the online health insurance marketplace. Five months ago it hired Dickerson to work at the Office of Management and Budget in a new post aimed at upgrading the federal government’s online operations.
When Pfeiffer wanted to figure out how to change the administration’s PR effort for the State of the Union this year, he traveled to California to conduct brainstorming sessions at Google, Facebook and a venture capital firm. The visit was part of a broader project Pfeiffer is leading on how the White House should use social media; he is expected to complete it before leaving the West Wing next month.
Silicon Valley has only grown more powerful over Obama’s two terms, and it has won the White House’s support at pivotal moments.
Last fall, after an expensive and years-long lobbying war between tech firms and telecom, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was poised to propose net neutrality rules that were intended to “split the baby” by offering concessions he hoped both sides could appreciate.
After several meetings with public advocates and tech firms — many of them small start-ups like Etsy and Tumblr — and with cable and telecom executives to discuss the policy, White House economic advisers helped craft a video statement in support of “the strongest possible rules” — far beyond Wheeler’s proposal. Obama said he wanted to see a drastic policy move that would reclassify broadband Internet service providers as utility phone services.
It was a surprise and embarrassment to the FCC chairman, and it made his proposal look much weaker to millions of consumers, tech companies, and even the late-night TV host John Oliver, who accused Wheeler of giving in to the wishes of cable and telecom firms.
Silicon Valley also scored a major victory when it helped derail an anti-piracy bill known as SOPA in 2012 that had been championed by the movie industry. Tech firms including Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia and Mozilla met with White House officials, warning that the bill proposed to shut down Web sites and could lead to censorship.
A public outcry led to a day of blackouts by Web sites such as Wikipedia and Craigslist. Millions of consumers flooded the voice mail and e-mail boxes of lawmakers — including young people, a critical part of the Democratic Party’s base.
The White House, which has supported copyright reforms in general, ultimately opposed the bill.
“This administration has demonstrated an understanding of the importance of tech and innovation issues to growth of the economy as a whole,” said Josh Ackil, co-founder of tech lobbying firm the Franklin Square Group, which represents Apple, GoPro, Uber and Cisco. “They just get it.”
Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.