Obama meets with tech executives. How were they picked?

The agenda for Obama and the tech execs included obvious issues, and some guests were no-brainers. But some may have had better political connections than industry bonafides.

Evan Vucci
President Barack Obama meets with technology executives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 17. From left: Mark Pincus, founder, Chief Product Officer & Chairman, Zynga; Marissa Mayer, President and CEO, Yahoo!; and President Obama.

President Obama met Tuesday with top executives from America’s leading high tech firms, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

The White House says the meeting was meant to focus on efforts to fix Obamacare’s HealthCare.gov website and on possible reforms in the way the government buys information technology.

“The president made clear his continued focus on improving the way we deliver technology ... and encouraged the CEOs to continue to share their ideas on how to do so,” according to a White House press office read-out of the meeting.

Mr. Obama also announced that a Microsoft executive, Kurt DelBene, will succeed Jeff Zients as the senior tech point person for the HealthCare.gov rescue effort. Mr. DelBene, who most recently served as chief of the Microsoft Office Division, also happens to be married to a Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington.

DelBene’s tech credentials appear to qualify him for his new mission. But his appointment still unleashed some cubicle-office-based snark.

“Everyone who loves Internet Explorer and Windows 8 will rejoice at the latest appointment from the White House to rescue its core policy from incompetence,” wrote Ed Morrissey over at the right-leaning Hot Air site.

Finally, the tech officials and the president also discussed the implications of the latest disclosures of National Security Agency intelligence-gathering.

Obama listened to the group’s “concerns and recommendations,” the White House said.

“This was an opportunity for the president to hear from CEOs directly as we near completion of our review of signals intelligence programs, building on the feedback we’ve received from the private sector in recent weeks and months,” said the administration read-out.

Somehow we think the conversation on this subject was livelier than these words indicate. Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA snooping has called the privacy protections of big tech applications and social media sites into question. We bet they told Obama he needed to do something to at least appear to rein in the NSA – and fast.

But here’s our question: how did these tech people get picked to meet with Obama in the first place?

Some of the firms represented were no-brainers, of course. Apple, Microsoft, et al are the titans of the US high-industry. But as the gossipy tech news site Valleywag noted, some of the invited guests were not quite in Apple Inc’s. league.

The administration “probably should have reconsidered some of these choices,” wrote Valleywag’s Sam Biddle.

Why, wondered Valleywag, did Zynga co-founder Mark Pincus get an invite? After all, his firm is most famous for a virtual farming game. Its stock has tumbled, employees have been laid off, and it’s in trouble.

Well, maybe Pincus got his place at the table because he donated $1 million to Priorities USA Action, the super-PAC that backed Obama in the 2012 election. Nor was he the only big Democratic fund-raiser in the room, noted the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a campaign finance watchdog group.

Venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar was there, too. He’s best known for backing the upscale car service Uber. He and his wife have donated more than $120,000 to Democrats. He was also an Obama campaign “bundler” – someone who bundles up contributions from others and sends them along to get partial credit for the money.

“In the 2012 campaign, Pishevar was a top-tier harvester of cash, gathering up at least $500,000 for the Obama campaign,” writes Russ Choma on CRP’s “Open Secrets” blog.

We’ll end by noting that the larger context for the meeting was increased political activity by the tech industry as a whole.

In recent years many tech giants have scaled up their Washington presence. Google, for instance, spent little on DC lobbying until 2010. Now they’re on track to spend about $15 million on disclosed lobby activities in 2013, according to CRP figures.

Microsoft’s lobbying expenditures are in the same ballpark. Like Google, the issues Microsoft is pushing most are related to cybersecurity and data privacy.

Years ago Microsoft paid little attention to what went on in Washington. Then it ran afoul of federal anti-trust regulators and discovered that in such circumstances professional representation in DC can be helpful. It’s likely that other tech firms saw what happened and are determined not to repeat Microsoft’s mistake.

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