Why telecom and cable companies outmaneuver tech companies in Washington

Ben Smith reports on Silicon Valley tech companies ‘attempts to gain a foothold in Washington, DC. He notes that despite tech companies’ rabid fan bases and ability to throw down cash, they’re still being outmaneuvered by old-school telecom and cable companies:

Tech has been, from the puzzled perspective of Washington’s political class, always arriving, never quite there. Its sheer wealth, enormous economic vitality, and immense cultural force should have brought massive clout. But tech companies instead have a reputation for throwing the most lavish parties at political conventions — and then getting smoked in the back room by old-line cable and telecoms companies. The energy behind a real populist uprising, “Stop SOPA,” never quite forms into a permanent interest. The industry’s highest policy priorities — hiring more foreign engineers, for instance — don’t make it into law.

And then later:

“They’re still punching below their weight,” reflected a top former Obama aide who now consults tech companies. “I mean — who’s got cultural capital in next 50 years? Comcast? Or Google, Facebook, Twitter? Really, it’s bananas that Comcast still gets away with what it gets away with.”

Smith fails to point out in the piece that much of cable and telecom clout is derived from a geographic advantage. Comcast may be hated by customers, but it employs thousands of workers, and not only that, these are local workers. Workers who lay down and maintain the cable lines. Workers who visit and install your cable. These employees are incredibly influential at the Senate and House levels, where cable companies can accuse Congressmen of not supporting local jobs. This packs much more influence than a few high-paid lobbyist and some campaign donations.

Tech companies will start winning these battles once they can mobilize their users at the local level. A good example of this is Uber. Every time local Taxi companies have tried to step in and regulate the company out of existence, it has appealed to that city’s most fervent Uber fans to sign petitions and call their local city council members. And, as Smith’s article notes, Uber has begun winning battles all across the U.S.

Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google are already utilizing geographic data for their targeted ads. They’re sitting on a wealth of information that can convert their most passionate users into brunt force cannon fodder against local politicians.