Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cyberleft and cyberright

This morning I saw an odd juxtaposition of two stories about the politics of right and left and California’s high tech industry.

The first involved a lawsuit against Craiglist, the free online ad service founded and run by Craig Newmark of San Francisco. In federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois, Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Inc. v. Craigslist, Inc., the plaintiffs alleged that Craiglist violated fair housing laws by allowing discriminatory housing advertisements.

Craigslist said that it was immune to lawsuit under the Communications Decency Act, and the court agreed. Craigslist was supported by a joint amicus brief that included major Internet firms (Amazon, eBay, Google, etc.) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Right wing ideologues have long been fractured between social and economics conservatives over cyberporn, but this is the first such fissure I’ve seen among their left wing counterparts. Effectively, the cyberleft and cyberright are using the same argument: we’re just the messenger, so go after the original author if you don’t like the message.

For the most part, EFF has impeccable bonafides on the left for leading the fight against the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 electronic surveillance efforts. However, by standing on its principles, it has also clashed with businesses that fund left-leaning causes, as with its fight over data mining by AOL, Google and Yahoo. More dramatically, one of its major causes has been to defend copyright infringement (euphemistically called “file sharing”) that undercuts the livelihood of various Hollywood entertainers, media moguls and their politicians. In that regard, EFF’s perspective is similar to that of its former board member, retiring cyberlibertarian guru Larry Lessig.

The other story this morning was woman-bites-dog story proving that there are actually Republican tech executives in Silicon Valley. (Note that in Republican circles, McCain is considered more of a centrist than a right-winger). The papers reported that retiring eBay CEO Meg Whitman has joined HP/Lucent alumna Carly Fiorina and Cisco CEO John Chambers in backing John McCain for President. The implausible claim is that McCain will attempt to win California, but everyone knows it’s just about raising money.

This means that politically active GOP execs here are outnumbered by Democrats by only 4:1 instead of 5:1. Google CEO Eric Schmidt donated to a range of Democrat candidates in 2004, and 98% of employee money went to Democrat candidates in the 2006 elections. Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a certified friend of Bill Clinton — having hosted a 1996 dinner at his Palo Alto home — and, like VC John Doerr, is also close to Al Gore. Despite being from Arkansas via Yale Law School, Clinton was clearly Silicon Valley’s favorite president of the past generation, and he strongly supported R&D spending favored by local executives.

If anything, local execs are less left-leaning than the Bay Area as a whole, which overwhelmingly favor Democrat (if not Green Party) candidates and causes. Like the rest of the party, local voters, donors and media this year are torn (if not fractured) between its two remaining presidential candidates. Perhaps as a legacy of her husband’s presidency (or the local demographics) Hilary Clinton beat Barrack Obama in the Silicon Valley popular vote. However, Obama was reportedly ahead in the money race here, including donors at Google and Yahoo.

Personally, I wish active tech execs wouldn’t get involved in partisan politics: they run the risk of becoming like steel and auto and textile execs, with their success depending on political protection rather than market prowess. The one place I’d make an exception is improving education quality, where clearly the private interests of employers intersect the general public interest. Such opportunities have included K-12 education reform, wiring school classrooms (something I once did), or improving science and engineering education (as Bill Gates did this week).

Of course, when tech execs ask for tax credits for R&D and cheaper imported labor (as Gates did), then their self-interest becomes blatantly obvious. I guess like lawyers and finance execs, successful tech execs think their success (or smarts or money) grant them a disproportionate role in picking politicians and making public policy.

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