What stirs a techie to action?

Silicon Alley can be a powerful voice on politics, when the entrepreneurs care enough to mobilize.

By Judith Messina | Crain's New York Business.com 

 Last January, when the Senate was considering legislation to stop online piracy, an estimated 1,200 members of New York Tech Meetup demonstrated in front of the Manhattan offices of New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, saying that the bill might lead to Internet censorship.

The Protect Intellectual Property Act and its companion bill in the House—the Stop Online Piracy Act—died, largely because the hot-button issue stirred a new activist sentiment in the tech community, here and elsewhere.

The victory in January says a lot about the tech community's nascent political voice. The high-tech sector is of increasing economic importance, and includes some deeply political players. It's hard to predict, however, which issues will stir techies and with what force they will mobilize.

Among those of concern to tech companies in the presidential election:

• Immigration reform: How to make it possible for foreign-born scientists and engineers, who are in short supply, to stay and work in the United States. Both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney support more visas for this sector.

• Cybersecurity: Whether government can regulate how industry protects against cyberthreats. President Obama supported a bill that was opposed by Republicans, which would have created voluntary standards for operators of critical infrastructure.

• Net neutrality: Whether current FCC rules that keep broadband service providers (mostly big telecomm companies) from controlling content should stand. Mr. Obama supports net neutrality; Mr. Romney opposes it.

"The New York tech community is very aware that the political system is potentially a threat to the future growth of the industry," says Andrew Rasiej, chairman of New York Tech Meetup.

Few individual entrepreneurs have emerged as political players— most are working 24/7 to build their companies.

"Most of the players in [the New York startup] ecosystem are small, and it's hard to have much of a voice," said Frank Rimalovski, managing director of the NYU Innovation Fund.

Investors, on the other hand, are demonstrably concerned about politics and policy fallout, especially on issues like tax policy and the regulatory burden on companies trying to go public. The National Venture Capital Association has a long list of policy issues relating to job creation, tax policy and research funding that it regularly takes to Capitol Hill. But frustration with Washington is also palpable. Angel investor Esther Dyson voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 but hasn't decided whom she will vote for in November. Ms. Dyson is on the board of advisors of Americans Elect, a nonprofit that attempted unsuccessfully this year to field a presidential ticket via an Internet convention.

"Both parties have done a horrible job," said Ms. Dyson. "I think the government should be focusing on things long-term, like education. [Issues such as] immigration matter, but it's not as important as getting these guys to think long term."

Silicon Alley has other political animals, too. Mr. Rasiej, the former chair of a technical advisory group to 2004 unsuccessful presidential hopeful Howard Dean, is founder of Personal Democracy Media, an organization that runs conferences and news sites that parse the impact of technology on politics and civil society. Kevin Ryan, CEO of Gilt Groupe, and Deven Parekh, a technology venture capitalist with Insight Venture Partners, are Obama donors and were co-hosts at a campaign event for President Obama here last March.

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