Adam Kovacevich, the former policy director at Google, would like Democrats to know the tech industry isn't so bad. So he launched a new trade association to prove it.
As conversations about Section 230, antitrust and gig work heat up in Congress, Kovacevich, who was most recently the head of government relations and public affairs at Lime, will lobby to moderate the most radical reforms being proposed by Democrats. He'll advocate against antitrust reform and full employee status for gig workers, among other things — and he knows he'll face pushback over labelling them "progressive" positions.
"If you think 'progressive' means 'reflexively anti-business,' we probably won't agree on much," Kovacevich said.
His group, the Chamber of Progress, is a 501(c)(6), meaning it will operate similarly to a Chamber of Commerce. His founding corporate partners include Amazon, DoorDash, Instacart, Uber, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Lime, Waymo, Zillow and more. Its closest analogue in the crowded tech policy world is NetChoice, the tech association that appeals mostly to the libertarian right.
Kovacevich will be the first employee of the Chamber of Progress, but he plans to post new job openings soon. And he thinks he's got an angle that can actually change the stilted conversation on Capitol Hill.
Protocol spoke with Kovacevich about what the Chamber of Progress plans to advocate for, what he thinks policymakers are getting wrong and how he plans to get through to Democrats as they call for breaking up the companies he'll represent.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What are your major goals with this project?
It's to help usher the debate about tech into its next chapter and to make sure that tech's future is as progressive as its past. I believe the tech industry has helped usher in a lot of positive change for society but the industry's honeymoon is over, and policymakers have valuable questions about how to ensure that all Americans benefit from high-tech advancements and questions about how to ensure the tech industry operates fairly and responsibly. Those are the questions we'll be focused on.
Will this count as lobbying? Are you technically advocating on behalf of these partner organizations?
We're a bit of a unique animal as an organization. We're expressly a business group, supported by our partner companies and we're 100% transparent about that. We're taking the idea of a local Chamber of Commerce, which everyone knows promotes business and free markets, and putting a progressive twist on the idea by saying that we're going to promote the progress of society. And we will be focused on tech policy as well as social and economic policy to create a more just society. We will probably engage in lobbying, but it's a different kind of tech industry group.
There are so many tech policy organizations out there, and many are focused on advocating for left-leaning tech policy priorities. What makes your organization different than, for instance, the Center for Democracy and Technology or Brookings Institution?
The organization is a hybrid. We're not a public interest group or a think tank. We are a 501(c)(6) business association. But what makes us different is we have an expressly center-left perspective. We'll agree with a lot of other groups, but everything is rooted back in this goal of a progressive future for technology.
Can you disclose how much money your partner organizations are contributing?
No. Most associations don't do that. But we do want to be 100% transparent about which partner companies are supporting our work.
I think you're going to get some criticism for using the label "progressive." When I think about "progressive" tech policy advocacy, I think about people who advocate for stronger antitrust reform and an end to the platform companies' business models. What do you say to those who are going to say, "This doesn't seem progressive to me"?
One of our aims is to have a healthy debate about what it means to be progressive, especially with regard to technology. If you think "progressive" means "reflexively anti-business," we probably won't agree on much. But if you think progressive means getting information and goods to more people, making technology more accessible to more people, and providing platforms for the voiceless and the marginalized, then let's have a debate about what policies best do that. I believe that most voters and most Democratic policymakers care about a broad set of progressive goals and are not reflexively anti-business.
Are you targeting moderate Democrats with your advocacy?
We've had some early conversations with groups like the House New Democrat Coalition and their state and local counterpart, the NewDeal Leaders. But we'll engage with anyone with a "D" behind their name.
And you won't engage with anyone with an "R" behind their name?
We'd love to engage with them, but there's already a lot of groups focusing on tech policy from a conservative perspective.
Why did you decide for your first position to be coming out in favor of the For the People Act, Democrats' landmark voting rights legislation? That doesn't seem to be directly related to tech policy.
A lot of what the tech industry has done over the last two decades is make goods and services and speech and information more accessible to people, from scholarly research to food delivery. But it's not enough to democratize commerce and information. We also need a healthy participatory democracy underlying our economy. So I think speaking up on voting rights is a natural fit for an industry focused on democratizing goods and services.
Beyond that, what will be your main policy priorities?
Our policy work is really grouped into three buckets: The first is economic progress, which is focused on income inequality, building a better social safety net. The second is on social progress, which is about inclusivity, democracy and healthy online communities. And the third is about consumer progress, which is really about serving consumers well with new services and increasing their access to goods and information. Within that, we will engage on a lot of the core tech policy debates like Section 230 and marketplace policy, but we'll also engage in issues more broadly.
Have you already formulated your positions on, for instance, the best federal privacy legislation? Or what antitrust reform should look like?
We haven't gotten involved with privacy yet — the organization is brand new. I'll take another example: Because we'll be strong advocates for healthy online communities, we'll be the champions of Section 230 because it incentivizes platforms to moderate and remove disinformation and inappropriate information from their platforms. That's not well-understood. If you don't like disinformation or hate speech, or you want to provide a voice for marginalized voices, Section 230 is for you and we'll be making that point. On areas like competition, we'll be attacking that from the perspective of saying that many services online are marketplaces and they create this win-win effect where you have a win for the marketplace, a win for the seller or participant, and then ultimately you're aiming at delighting the consumer. So we'll be talking a lot about the importance of preserving those marketplaces.
When you were at Lime, your job was to advocate for Lime. When you were at Google, your job was to advocate for Google's interests. Are you going to have any different stances now that you're off on your own?
We've outlined a set of principles. No partner companies sit on the board of directors of the organization or have a vote, and we're going to stay true to these principles even when partners disagree. There will be plenty of moments where partner companies disagree with something the organization says and that's fine. There will be times when we'll take a position that's different from a partner company's. With a group of partner companies like this, you'll have different perspectives.
What do you think Democratic lawmakers are getting wrong in the debate over Section 230?
If I rent a car from Hertz and I run a red light and it's caught on a red-light camera, who's going to pay that ticket? Not Hertz. I pay that ticket. And that is an important principle for holding me responsible when I'm driving that car. Section 230 enforces the same principle: If I go onto Reddit and say, "John Doe is a crook," John Doe can sue me for defamation, but he can't sue Reddit because Reddit doesn't pre-screen comments. And I don't think any of us want an internet where Reddit is forced to be pre-screening comments. The drive to revoke Section 230 seems motivated by a desire to punish Big Tech, but revoking it would do the opposite. The big companies have plenty of content reviewers and lawyers, and they would survive 230's revocation just fine. Who's really threatened is the next Google, the next Facebook, the startup, the small website. They're the ones who will have a harder time. I also think the other thing is that when people focus on 230, what they are really criticizing is the First Amendment and the platform's own First Amendment rights to disallow whatever speech they like. I don't want the government playing speech police to any site: Huffington Post, Gab, Parler, Facebook, Twitter. That's why we have the First Amendment.
What was your major takeaway from the hearing [last week]?
Tech had a long political honeymoon, we're in a stage still where most of the proposals are more extreme than most consumers support: breaking up companies, abolishing Section 230. Tech has left its dirty laundry on the floor and the step we need next is relationship counsel. I'm optimistic that some of the questions at the hearing yesterday illuminated a path to coming up with sensible rules.