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]