What possible reason can eBay have for standing by ultraconservative climate change deniers at ALEC?



The tech world’s strange love affair with ultraconservative ALEC is unraveling.

Over the past two months, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yelp, and Yahoo have distanced themselves from the American Executive Legislation Council (ALEC), a Koch Brothers-backed think tank that’s pushed just about every controversial right-wing legislative initiative you can think of. Teaching climate change denial in schools? Check. Advocating for Voter ID laws that disenfranchise minorities? Uh huh. A national “Stand Your Ground” law? Why not?

The breaking point for ALEC’s souring relationship with so many high-profile tech firms appears to be the group’s denial of strong, widely-agreed-upon evidence that climate change is real and humans are making it worse. (ALEC recently denied its, uh, denial, but ALEC’s own model legislation directly contradicts its claims of innocence). But despite the risks of aligning your organization with anti-sustainability interests, there’s one high-profile tech firm that still hasn’t denounced the organization: eBay, along with its billionaire founder and chairman Pierre Omidyar.

Today, over eighty non-profits including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace signed a letter urging eBay to end its affiliation with ALEC. eBay, like Google and Microsoft in the past, is a member of ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force, an affiliation that costs the company $ 5,000 a year in membership fees and thus represents a direct form of financial support for the controversial organization.

“The public knows,” the letter states, “that the ALEC operation which brings state legislators and corporate lobbyists behind closed doors to discuss proposed legislation and share lavish dinners threatens our democracy. The public is asking eBay to stop participating in this scheme.”

eBay spokeswoman Abby Smith has finally responded to the letter, saying that ALEC promotes issues that are “material to the success of eBay Inc and our customers” and that “our team of internal stakeholders meets regularly to assess the best approach for resolving these issues.”

But would leaving ALEC really have a negative impact on eBay’s business?

Possibly. Yelp, for example, had a clear and legitimate legal interest in aligning itself with ALEC. The organization crafted model legislation to fight SLAPP lawsuits, which could be used against Yelp’s users who post bad reviews. Indeed, eBay is currently relying on an anti-SLAPP argument in a lawsuit that a patent troll filed against it. But user-generated content, which is usually what anti-SLAPP legislation protects, is not as fundamental to its business as it is to Yelp. And again, even Yelp has cut ties with ALEC.

Another of the Task Force’s stated areas of focus is “promoting new forms of e-commerce,” which is certainly in eBay’s wheelhouse. But Amazon, the largest ecommerce site in the US, felt no need to stay aligned with ALEC past 2012. Then there’s ALEC’s and eBay’s shared support of net neutrality. That’s the same justification Facebook made when it donated $ 10,000 to an anti-gay politician: We both support a free and open Internet! But net neutrality has attracted support among a very broad set of organizations, and not all of them were just abandoned by half a dozen of eBay’s peers.

What about eBay’s chairman Omidyar? Surely, this “civic-minded billionaire,” who through his Omidyar Network has given hundreds of millions of dollars to philanthropic causes, wouldn’t dream of aligning himself with an organization like ALEC — an organization for whom social and environmental justice plays a distant second fiddle to the Koch Brothers’ funhouse mirror version of free market capitalism. Or would he? As Mark Ames and Yasha Levine have reported, Omidyar’s politics are difficult, though not impossible, to suss out:

Omidyar Network’s philanthropy reveals Omidyar as a free-market zealot with an almost mystical faith in the power of “markets” to transform the world, end poverty, and improve lives—one micro-individual at a time.

And yet, the Omidyar Network is also one of the leading backers of the upcoming film “Merchants of Doubt,” which seeks to expose the “silver-tongued pundits-for-hire” spreading denial campaigns on serious public health threats like tobacco, toxic chemicals, and yes, climate change. Considering that climate change denial has become the predominant force drawing tech companies away from ALEC, eBay’s continued membership constitutes a pretty significant contradiction for Omidyar. And let’s not forget that for many of the third world communities the Omidyar Network wants to help, devastation from climate change isn’t just a well-supported forecast — it’s already a reality.

Maybe eBay is too focused on its forthcoming PayPal spin off to pay attention to the outcry over ALEC. Maybe eBay has already decided to let its ALEC membership lapse and it simply hasn’t approved the move with its shareholders. In any case, companies like Facebook learned the hard way what happens when you align yourself with anti-sustainability interests that run counter to the fundamental principles of your community or industry. And with the tide in the tech community clearly shifting away from ALEC and other climate change deniers, eBay needs to take control of this narrative before it spins out of control, and people start accusing the company of clubbing baby seals and creating the hole in the ozone layer.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]



The techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley should think twice about aligning with climate deniers



As Mark Ames wrote yesterday, the Reboot 2014 conference has officially kicked off in San Francisco. Its stated goal is to leverage Silicon Valley’s technical talent to help foster “liberty,” which is really just shorthand for “libertarianism.” After all, the marquee speakers are free market rockstar Rand Paul and Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie, and the event is sponsored by the oil and gas magnates Charles and David Koch.

Ames’ piece is a great primer on the history of homophobia and racism that pervades the slimy brand of libertarianism the Kochs and their cronies want to bring to Silicon Valley. But there’s another issue close to the Koch crew’s hearts that should give pause to many of Silicon Valley’s most iconic figures: Climate change denial.

In an op-ed published on Thursday at Forbes, contributor Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. puts forth his vision of Silicon Valley as a libertarian playground, where anti-regulation techies and policy gurus can celebrate a “Separation of Technology and State.” And as befits Forbes, which along with occasionally committing random acts of journalism has become a mouthpiece for any special interest no matter how compromised, Mr. Crews has a clear agenda. He is the Policy Director for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Koch-funded libertarian think tank and one of the world’s leading propagandists of climate change denial.

Lies, damned lies, and climate denial

CEI’s denier bonafides are easy to spot, but here are two examples of the institute’s willfully misleading record on climate change:

In 2006, CEI produced two television ads claiming that carbon dioxide in all its forms and quantities is a great boon for the environment and that global warming is not responsible for shrinking ice sheets in Antarctica. Shortly thereafter, the scientist responsible for the research cited by the ads said CEI misrepresented his research.

“These television ads are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate,” said Curt Davis, director of the Center for Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “They are selectively using only parts of my previous research to support their claims. They are not telling the entire story to the public.”

Then in 2010, CEI “scholar” Christopher C. Horner wrote a book called, “Power Grab: How Obama’s Green Policies Will Steal Your Freedom and Bankrupt America.” To hear Horner tell it, climate change is an myth perpetuated by alarmists and socialists, coal is a clean and sustainable energy source that doesn’t destroy the environment and communities, and that Obama’s supposed crusade to save the environment is really just a smokescreen to tighten the federal government’s iron grip on the lives of red-blooded Americans.

Never mind that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that “warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” Never mind that the decline of coal in recent decades has been driven not by federal regulations but by market forces (hear that, libertarians? The market!), like the rise of natural gas and reductions in energy usage. And never mind that, until only recently, environmentalists saw little to celebrate in President Obama’s record on green initiatives. During his years as a Senator, Obama still held close ties to the coal industry in his home-state, championing coal-to-liquid-fuel technology which, as the New Republic’s Alec McGillis notes, produces double the carbon emissions of traditional petroleum. “The only two regimes to have tried it at mass scale are Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa,” McGillis writes.

The CEI’s incentive for building climate denial narratives with no regard for the truth is pretty clear: The institute’s list of leading donors is a murderer’s row of oil and gas interests, including Amoco, Texaco, ExxonMobil, and, not to be outdone, the Koch family.

But it’s not just energy companies that have given massive sums to CEI. The institute’s donor list also includes some of Silicon Valley’s most dominant tech firms. Google was the biggest single donor at CEI’s annual fundraising dinner in 2013, giving $ 50,000. Facebook added a cool $ 25,000 to the stack, and Microsoft tossed in $ 5,000. At that event, which like Reboot was also headlined by Rand Paul, telecommunications firms also made donations, with Comcast giving $ 10,000 and Verizon giving $ 7,500.

Google also has strong ties to CEI through its Google Policy Fellowship, which sends college students to work at think tanks and other organizations with an eye toward shaping Internet and technology policy. According to the Fellowship’s homepage, Google has shipped some wide-eyed recruit to CEI every year since the program was started in 2008. Google’s support of climate change denial isn’t limited to its ties to CEI either — just weeks after the institute’s gala dinner, it hosted a fundraiser for Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) who, despite improbably serving on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, is one of Congress’ most strident climate change deniers.

The backlash

The increasingly strong ties between tech companies and oil/gas interests have not gone unnoticed in Silicon Valley. FWD.us, the pro-immigration political action committee supported by Mark Zuckerberg, Ron Conway, John Doerr, and Bill Gates, found itself under attack by some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent supporters of environmental initiatives after it produced two controversial television spots. One was an endorsement for the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmentalists argue will increase greenhouse gases and pose the risk of leaks and spills. (That said, the State Department determined that while tapping Canadian oil sands would indeed increase emissions, those resources will likely be tapped by somebody regardless of whether the pipeline is approved). The second ad came out in support of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The backlash was immediate: Elon Musk, who between Tesla Motors and Solar City is the tech industry’s patron saint of sustainable energy, left FWD.us, striking a major blow to the group’s credibility. Yammer founder and PayPal Mafioso David Sacks also bailed. And Vinod Khosla, one of the Valley’s leading investors in the clean-tech space, tweeted, “Will Fwd.us prostitute climate destruction & other values to get a few engineers hired & get immmigration [sic] reform?” Curiously, John Doerr, who famously welled up during an emotional TED Talk on clean energy, stayed largely silent throughout the controversy, and is still listed as a supporter on FWD.us’ website. Were those merely crocodile tears, Mr. Doerr?

The response to the FWD.us fiasco shows the danger of aligning with groups that, despite sharing a few common goals, are also strong advocates for initiatives that go against fundamental principles of the community or industry these firms represent. This tactic rears its head again and again in the fight against mass NSA surveillance, like when Greenpeace teamed up with the extremist Tenth Amendment Center, which seeks nothing less than the total dismantling of the EPA, among other federal social programs.

Certainly, tech companies and hard-line libertarians are closely aligned on many issues, some of which are perfectly reasonable. State laws that bar Tesla from selling its cars directly to customers and force the company to sell through auto dealerships that add virtually no value in terms of safety or efficiency, are indefensible.

But as former AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case argues, we’re moving away from a “disrupt now, ask questions later” model, and that the most successful tech firms in the third wave of the Internet will be those willing to work with government bodies, not just against them.

By allowing into their fold staunchly anti-government political operatives, tech firms risk losing the ability to operate and negotiate terms in a regulatory environment. And when those same operatives are themselves aligned with homophobic, racist, or anti-science constituencies, tech firms should run away faster than you can say “Who is John Galt.”

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]