Jamie Bartlett

How tech lobbyists harness the power of grassroots activism

How tech lobbyists harness the power of grassroots activism
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Tibet in Agony: Lhasa 1959

Jianglin Li, translated by Susan Wilf

Harvard, pp. 128, £

A strange thing happened after TFL’s decision last month not to renew Uber’s license to operate in London. The ride sharing app started a petition on the website change.org.

To defend the livelihoods of 40,000 drivers - and the consumer choice of millions of Londoners - sign this petition asking to reverse the decision to ban Uber in London.

Thousands of stranded bus-shy Londoners rushed to sign, making it the fastest growing petition in the UK this year. (At the time of writing it’s reached 855 thousand signatures). And of course it was accompanied by the mandatory hashtag #saveyouruber, which was shared by the official Uber UK Twitter account.

Big business has always used its clout and money to lobby. Millions are spent in London, Brussels and Washington on shaping laws. Until recent years most big tech firms steered clear of all this, mistakenly thinking they might avoid dirtying their hands with politics. But they’re rising up the spending charts. Amazon, Apple and Google spent record sums lobbying in Washington in the past three months: splashing out $10 million between them on issues like tax, privacy, self-driving car regulations, and immigration reform. Under Obama there was something of a revolving door between big tech firms and his administration.

But what’s happening with Uber is different. They are very deliberately trying to create the impression of an organic grassroots movement of ordinary Londoners, and using their platform and unique access to users to mobilise them. Uber’s Terms and Condition were recently updated to mean the app can be used ‘to inform you about elections, ballots, referenda and other political processes that relate to our services’. Uber sent emails and notifications to regular users, encouraging them to get involved with the campaign – telling recipients that they should become part of this noble cause of the little people: By wanting to ban our app from the capital, Transport for London and their chairman the Mayor have given in to a small number of people who want to restrict consumer choice’. It's impressive in a way: nearly one million people have done a little bit of lobbying for the world’s most valuable start-up company that wasn’t following the rules.  

So-called grassroots activism has also been used by large PR firms in the past. But I don’t ever recall receiving emails from BP asking me to lobby or campaign on fuel duties. The automated check-out machine at Morrisons hasn’t once told me that, in addition to moving the unexpected item in the bagging area, I might like to e-mail my MP to say I’d like corporation tax lowered.

Uber are playing from a new lobbying textbook, in which users are invited to work with the companies to stop big bad governments from harming their precious services. Tech firms, in spite of their size and power, still present themselves as scrappy little start-ups that are on the side of the little guy. Back in 2012, Congress was presented with the Stop Online Piracy Act.  The film and music industry broadly backed the proposal, which was aimed at cracking down on piracy, especially targeting sites that might link to such sites. Google strongly opposed, and it used its front-page-of the-internet to let it be known. For 24 hours visitors to www.google.com found a giant black box over the logo, and a link: ‘Tell Congress – please don’t censor the web’. On clicking, it redirected to a petition which went to Congress urging them to reject the bill. No company in the history of the world has been able to reach more people more quickly. Millions clicked the link of course, overwhelming Congress servers. The bill failed. Not censoring the web is an honourable goal, but it is also one that happens to be in Google’s commercial interests.

The home sharing app Airbnb has taken this a step further.  Back in 2015, San Franciscans were asked to vote on ‘Proposition F’, which would have restricted short-term rentals to 75 days a year and compelled hosts to pay hotel taxes. Airbnb spent millions of dollars fighting the measure – and most of that went on organising and communicating with Airbnb hosts and guests, enlisting them on their No-on-F campaign, knocking on doors and showing banner ads on their site which said: ‘Vote No on F’.

This was part of a wider plan to create a community – it’s always that word, community, and never customer - of grassroots activists called ‘home-sharing clubs’ with the aim of forming ‘a powerful people-to-people political advocacy bloc’. In other words, join a principled movement to fight unwanted regulations. ‘Our community is committed to defeating proposition F’, said a spokesperson at the time.  And guess what? Proposition F failed. ‘In this election, the Airbnb San Francisco home share community became a movement,’ said Chris Lehane, the mastermind behind the plan.

As technology and politics continue to clash – and they will –  it’s a fair bet that tech lobbying will continue to grow too. That's perfectly understandable. Some of that will take the form of direct spending, and that can be monitored. But it will also take a more elusive form of soft power. Tech firms have a resource even more valuable than their cash reserves: direct and personal access to millions of clickers, posters, sharers and tweeters that can be unwittingly turned into a small army of cheap lobbyists to do this work for them.  A bottom up organic movement, all orchestrated from the top.