Tech execs wade into the political fray

Will IT smarts shape public policy?

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"Washington can be a difficult place for tech leaders. They're used to running things at light speed, and they want the legislative process to go the same way. That doesn't always happen," he says.

But Fiorina doesn't agree that a chasm exists. "You know, technology may be at the cutting edge of innovation -- and that's a quickly moving edge -- but even in technology, creating institutional change is difficult. It requires a major investment in consensus-building. To get anything done, you have to influence others' opinions and let them influence yours," she says.

Indeed, she says, "One of the major reasons I got involved in politics and why I'm running for U.S. Senate is because the decisions made by the Senate affect every family and every business in America, including the technology sector. Sometimes that's to the industry's benefit and sometimes it's to the industry's detriment."

Poizner says he actually sees a lot of similarities between his time in the tech sector and what he expects to happen in government. "I'm a person that builds and fixes things. [Now] I'm going to have to build coalitions in order to get laws passed through the California legislature," he says.

(Fiorina and Poizner responded to questions via e-mail. Whitman declined Computerworld's requests for an interview, and Kelly did not respond.)

Tech sector in transition

Political insiders say they have seen a greater interest in government within the tech sector overall, and that certainly makes it more palatable for tech leaders to enter politics. For instance, Google, Microsoft and a lot of the other big-name industry giants have an increasing presence in Washington and spend considerable time and money on Capitol Hill, educating lawmakers about the issues.

Gov. Jack Markell
"The tech sector depends on regulators and policy-makers, and the government needs technology to better serve its citizens," says Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a former tech executive. "Having a firm grasp on technology puts you in a much better position to ask the right questions."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org, in 2009 the computer and Internet industry spent more than $119 million on lobbying, making it the sixth largest influencer behind such heavy hitters as the pharmaceutical, oil and gas, and electric utility industries. Microsoft topped the list of individual company contributors in the computer and Internet sector, spending $6.7 million. IBM shelled out $5.4 million, and Google spent $4 million.

That's a sharp rise from the late 1990s, when Microsoft, which spent just over $3.9 million on lobbying in 1998, faced an antitrust lawsuit. Some observers mark Microsoft's battle with the government as a time of awakening for executives at emerging computer and Internet companies, who were a bit more naive than their predecessors at older tech companies when it came to dealing with Washington.

"While IBM and AT&T also had antitrust cases, they were more mature companies at the time and already had cozied up to Washington. Microsoft [and its peers] had pretty much ignored Washington, D.C., before its antitrust case and they got clobbered. That case proved that there can be bad consequences if the tech sector does not pay attention to government," says Colleen Boothby, a partner in the Washington-based law firm Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby LLP, which represents corporate customers in court and before the Federal Communications Commission.

She says that, until then, the upstarts had been busy creating new products and selling them into a market where there was little or no existing law or policy-making process to trip them up. "It's not that there was hostility, they were just kind of oblivious," she says. "Once their businesses developed enough to run into tax issues, import/export restrictions, H-1B visas, antitrust scrutiny, etc., they had to start caring about Washington."

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