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Koch network throws its weight behind Silicon Valley in the regulatory battle with Washington

Key Points
  • The Koch network has quietly spent at least $10 million over the past four years to combat the backlash against new technologies and encourage digital free speech, according to a person familiar with group's funding.
  • Since the election of President Donald Trump, the group has distanced itself from the GOP and instead focused on building coalitions from across the political spectrum on specific issues.
  • Tech is one of the latest examples of that new strategy. The industry has come under fire from both sides of the aisle, and the network said it would not hesitate to cross party lines to defend innovation.
Charles Koch 
Patrick T. Fallon | The Washington Post | Getty Images

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Billionaire industrialist Charles Koch has waded into the battle over Big Tech.

Koch's sprawling network of advocacy and philanthropy organizations has quietly spent at least $10 million over the past four years to combat the backlash against new technologies and encourage digital free speech, according to a person familiar with the group's funding. The effort has encompassed grants to academics and think tanks, support for state and local legal battles, and political ad campaigns.

"In this time of disruption, people are wondering if they can adapt and succeed," Koch said in a video message to wealthy donors invited to the network's summer summit. "Our answer is yes."

The libertarian Koch network has long been a powerful advocate for conservative causes and a major funder for Republican politicians. But since the election of President Donald Trump, the group has distanced itself somewhat from the GOP and focused on building coalitions from across the political spectrum on specific issues instead.

Tech is one of the latest examples of that new strategy. The industry has come under fire from both sides of the aisle, and the network said it would not hesitate to cross party lines to defend innovation.

During the midterms, for example, the network spent $2.1 million on ads supporting then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley's challenge to incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Hawley won the election and has since emerged as one of the leading critics of the tech industry on Capitol Hill. Last month, he introduced a bill that would eliminate liability immunity for online platforms unless they get clearance from federal regulators — a potential death blow to internet companies.

The Koch network quickly issued a statement slamming Hawley's bill as "toxic" and argued it would "punish success in the next generation of innovative startups."

This spring, after presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called for breaking up companies such as Facebook and Google, the group released an ad campaign warning members of the Senate Judiciary Committee not to use antitrust law as a "political weapon." The targets included Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., whom the network has otherwise staunchly supported.

"We believe technology greatly improves people's lives," said Jesse Blumenthal, director of technology and innovation for Stand Together, the Koch network's umbrella organization. "In order to facilitate that, we need cultural attitudes and policies that allow for experimentation. That's why we're taking a more active role in supporting positive tech work and holding government accountable on tech issues."

At the Koch summit, tech was a recurring theme over the three-day gathering. Donors could take a spin in a self-driving minivan. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is scheduled to deliver a speech at the summit on Monday. And AOL founder Steve Case addressed the audience on Sunday and implored them to invest in start-ups outside of established bases such as California, New York and Massachusetts.

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"That's my deepest passion — to move the world forward with science and technology," said Mark Johnson, who attended the summit and co-founded Descartes Labs, a New Mexico start-up that uses artificial intelligence to analyze global data. "Everybody here wants to change the world, and I want to help them."

The network has been attempting to recruit more tech executives to support its causes. Charles Koch's son, Chase, told donors on Sunday about his first meeting with Silicon Valley heavyweights.

"I went into that with, admittedly, probably a closed mindset. How are they going to view Koch? How are they going to view me? Are they going to be open? And I was blown away," he said. "We disagreed on a lot of key priorities and the way things are approached. But on the things we could agree on, we had such fantastic partnerships with some of those folks."

More broadly, the summit aimed to assure donors of the benefits of innovation and dispel cultural fears around disruption. It also extolled the importance of dialogue between disparate groups as essential to a functioning society.

"There is no greater advocate for free speech or free expression than this group," said Brian Hooks, chief executive of Stand Together. "Censorship and silencing those that we disagree with will never address the polarization that we all feel."