Unpacking Zuckerberg's Role in Public Policy

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has gathered together a number of prominent Silicon Valley tech titans to create a new advocacy group, FWD.us. The overall mission of the group is to lobby for a greater impact on public policy. (Read Mark Zuckerberg's IP profile.)

While it's true that the tech industry already boasts of a number of trade organizations that lobby Congress, the group Zuckerberg envisions could be more influential because it could advocate for specific solutions to problems without having to get broad consensus from the industry. As Zuckerberg envisions it, the group would focus on issues such as immigration, education reform, the environment, and alternative energy, among a number of other social issues that can affect both society at large and the tech industry specifically.

Thus far, the group is in its infancy and is registered as a 501(c)(4) non-profit social welfare group. It hopes to raise roughly $50 million and has already secured commitments in the tens of millions of dollars from Zuckerberg and at least a dozen other tech bigwigs, including Reid Hoffman, the founder and CEO of LinkedIn, and Joe Green, one of Zuckerberg's former college roommates, who is now with the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm.

The first issue the new advocacy group is focusing on is comprehensive immigration reform, including a less complicated pathway to citizenship for all immigrants. Zuckerberg was recently a cosigner of a letter from more than 100 tech executives that urged President Obama and Congress to provide more permanent visas for "highly skilled" immigrants in this country. The group will eventually turn its focus to issues that many of the members support with their philanthropy, such as education reform and funding for scientific research. These are causes they think will provide long-term solutions to vexing problems, such as ensuring a steady supply of talented entrepreneurs and engineers, but also benefit society as a whole.

Based on the seemingly sudden interest from Zuckerberg in dabbling in the political arena, many have suggested that he is concerned with his public image, which is admittedly mixed, and wants to carve out a more public role for himself. This idea isn't far-fetched, since the move follows a couple of very public philanthropic endeavors. In one, Zuckerberg made a donation of $100 million to the public schools of Newark, New Jersey, but it came with something of a political catch; the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, had to return a measure of control of the school district to the city, after the state had taken over in the 1990s. Then, last year, Zuckerberg made a donation of just under $500 million to the non-profit Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

FWD.us is still in its start-up phase, and its policy focus is continuing to take shape. However, the newly minted 501(c)(4) is already experiencing a little bit of blowback as its promise to "be different" from other lobbying and advocacy groups is falling flat. BuzzFeed.com's Josh Miller states, "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." Sarah Lacy of Pandodaily penned an article titled "How FWD.us could succeed in spite of itself." Somini Sengupta of the New York Times said of Zuckerberg, et al, "Silicon Valley Group's Political Effort Causes Uproar."

Regardless of the blowback, many consider the recent passing of the Senate bill for immigration reform a big win for Zuckerberg and FWD.us. It will be interesting how the group's overall plans dovetail with philanthropic pursuits.