FWD.us Breaks Its First Promise: To Be Different

The start-up world’s first public attempt to influence policy is giving up before it even gets started.

Josh Miller is a cofounder and CEO at Branch.

As a start-up founder, former senatorial intern, and director of an amateur documentary about racial inequality in public schools, I cannot tell you how excited I was to hear about Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us — a 501©(4) lobbying organization. It is the start-up community’s first earnest attempt at organizing in public for political progress, and I had high hopes for what our industry’s insistence on innovative approaches could bring to Washington.

However, my interest quickly turned to disappointment after learning more about the organization during a luncheon with FWD.us president Joe Green. In service of noble causes, FWD.us is employing questionable lobbying techniques, misleading supporters, and not being transparent about the underlying values and long-term intentions of the organization. More discouragingly, the leaders of the technology industry (and of FWD.us) have built their careers on bringing meaningful change to the world. They should be doing the same in Washington.

FWD.us’ lobbying strategy, though pitched as “pragmatic” and “smart” by Beltway insiders, is typically only practiced by large pharmaceutical companies, gun manufacturers, and the like. It works like this: You approach key representatives who are on the fence about voting for comprehensive legislative reform and finance advertisements that portray their stance on any other issue of their choosing. In other words, FWD.us effectively bribes politicians by saying, “Vote with us on this controversial issue, and we’ll remind your constituents why you’re great on some other issue they care about — any issue.” Thus, the Keystone XL debacle was not an accident — it’s the strategy. Supporters of this lobbying technique defend it by saying, “It’s the way Washington works.” But given that Mark Zuckerberg and the other technology pioneers who are behind FWD.us have risen to prominence by spearheading disruptive innovations, reverting to such traditional lobbying tactics seems like a missed opportunity for meaningful change. Technology companies live and die by how innovative their products are, our organizing and lobbying tactics should be no different.

More importantly, it feels misleading to FWD.us’ supporters. Though the organization is transparent about these lobbying tactics in private (when wooing potential donors and technology leaders), nothing on the FWD.us website, or on any other publicly available marketing materials, acknowledges this strategy. So while the call to action on the FWD.us website is to “Join the tech community in passing immigration reform,” and the site outlines “The Need For Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” folks who support FWD.us under the pretense of supporting immigration reform are inadvertently providing support for other issues with which they likely disagree. At our luncheon, for example, there was a founder who is from Newtown, Connecticut, and cares deeply about gun control. If he persuaded his friends, families, and colleagues to donate to FWD.us, they would likely (unknowingly) be financing the creation of anti-gun control advertisements. That doesn’t seem right. No, it is downright misleading.

In addition to transparency about lobbying tactics, the values and long-term intentions of FWD.us are also opaque. Other than a brief mention in Mr. Zuckerberg’s op-ed, FWD.us goes to no great lengths to mention that the organization will eventually advocate for other, non-immigration-related issues. Only two bullet points, on a secondary web page, are dedicated to this point — and when this intention is communicated, it is done so in incredibly vague terms. Although you would be hard-pressed to find a technology founder who doesn’t believe we need meaningful immigration reform, education — one of the other issues that is near and dear to FWD.us’ heart — is much more controversial. Does FWD.us believe in charter schools? Standardized testing? We don’t know, because the organization’s stance is never mentioned. And it’s definitely not clear that when I sign-up to support “comprehensive immigration reform,” I’m also associating my name with an organization that will eventually lobby for yet-to-be-defined stances, on yet-to-be-defined issues.

To Mr. Zuckerberg, I would say this: One gets the sense that you are approaching FWD.us in the same way venture capitalists invest in start-ups. You put money and support behind a smart team tackling massive problems, with the faith that they will figure out the details along the way. However, that lack of introspection is ultimately harmful in the world of public policy. FWD.us is dealing with peoples’ principles, pocketbooks, and ultimately, livelihoods, so I urge you to take a more thoughtful, transparent approach — not to “Move Fast and Break Things.” Specifically, I would encourage you and the other FWD.us leaders to do the following:

1. Decide whether FWD.us is an organization dedicated to immigration reform, a lobby for the technology industry, or an advocacy group lobbying for like-minded individuals (à la the Sierra Club). The distinctions are meaningful.

2. If it’s one of the latter two, more granularly outline the organization’s guiding principles, beliefs, and stances on key issues that it will be lobbying for. The fact that the economy has moved from an “Agrarian” to a “Knowledge” one is an astute observation but it is not a legislative agenda, and it does not inform whether or not FWD.us believes charter schools are a good idea.

3. Leverage the collective intellect of FWD.us’ prominent supporters, and technology industry at-large, to formulate a more progressive approach to legislative lobbying. You changed the world from your dorm room and can do better than the tactics used by the pharmaceutical and weapons manufacturing industries. Let’s be responsible for meaningful reform, but in a way that is true to the progressive, innovative nature of our industry.

Finally, I would like to say thank you. Though some have questioned your intentions, I applaud the fact that you are pushing for comprehensive immigration reform — not just policies that will help Facebook hire foreigners — and I commend you for taking the initiative to “build a movement in the tech community.” Despite being the CEO of a publicly traded company, you clearly haven’t lost your entrepreneurial roots. Let’s just find a way to revolutionize the way we communicate with Washington in the same you revolutionized the way we talk to each other.

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