His clout in Silicon Valley gets White House hopefuls talking
Michael Arrington is such a potent force in Silicon Valley that his name has become synonymous with the current Internet boom.
His blog, TechCrunch, is a must read for anyone who wants the inside dope on the Web business. His review can make or break a tiny start-up.
Recently, Arrington decided to parlay his considerable clout into a different kind of currency. He thrust Silicon Valley onto the national political scene in December when he took the unusual step of mounting a campaign of his own: a “tech president” primary.
His powerful base of plugged-in techies helped him land interviews with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other presidential candidates. Then he pushed the contenders to articulate something they don’t often discuss: their technology policies.
As a result, Arrington, 38, claims the distinction of endorsing the presumptive nominees from both parties back in January when the outcome for each was uncertain.
“Anybody in the world can say, ‘I have a blog, hey, come talk to me,’ ” Republican strategist Dan Schnur said. “But Mike figured out a way to make sure the campaigns understood they weren’t just talking to him, they were talking to a very influential audience of tech leaders.”
Silicon Valley has long represented the land of opportunity for politicians. Its citizens have deep pockets, and the technology it produces increasingly transforms the way political battles are waged. But the region’s ability to engage Washington in a meaningful dialogue on the issues important to Silicon Valley has been hit or miss despite a dramatic increase in political lobbying.
“The valley is quickly maturing and evolving in recognizing, from a business perspective, that it needs to have a much bigger, more effective voice in Washington, D.C.,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said. “TechCrunch got the candidates to engage about technology policy at a level they haven’t done before.”
A onetime corporate lawyer and Internet company executive, Arrington decamped after the dot-com bust to lead a beach-bum lifestyle, only to return in 2005 when he ran out of money. He started TechCrunch as a lark and was as surprised as anyone when the site took off. He was even more surprised at the influence he quickly wielded.
The dark circles under his eyes reflect his nonstop obsession with the goings-on in Silicon Valley. His goal: to be the first to report anything of significance. He gets cheap haircuts and little sleep. What matters to Arrington: his monster scoops, such as Google Inc.'s $1.65-billion purchase of online video sharing site YouTube Inc. in 2006.
His competitive streak and colorful personality help fuel his success and his critics, who question his tactics and accuse him of conflicts of interest because of his investments in Internet companies. The attacks haven’t slowed his momentum.
TechCrunch has flourished into a small publishing empire that puts on conferences, throws swanky parties and gives out awards. Its fast-growing, affluent audience has given Arrington access to some of high-tech’s most prominent figures and to the jet-setting world of big business, including the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Arrington says he began thinking about picking a tech president last summer. He was frustrated that none of the candidates seemed to know much about technology. He grew increasingly determined to get them to weigh in on the information revolution -- the epicenter of which frequently seems to be in Arrington’s rented Atherton, Calif., house, where entrepreneurs stop in unannounced in search of write-ups and Silicon Valley big-shots gather for parties.
Arrington says now is the time for techies to have a greater voice in politics as Facebook, YouTube and other technologies shake up how candidates campaign. So, in December he courted the presidential contenders. His pitch: Issues such as network neutrality -- rules that would prevent Internet service providers from blocking or slowing certain content flowing through their high-speed lines -- may be boring, but they are vital to the economy.
Arrington landed interviews with all the candidates except Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who suspended her presidential bid Saturday. He praises former Republican candidate Mitt Romney for being the first to brave his questions and TechCrunch readers’ “crazy comments.” He dings former Democratic contender Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio for hanging up the phone before delving into any of the issues.
Arrington ended each interview with the same question: Are you a Mac or PC user?
In the populist tradition of Silicon Valley, Arrington encouraged TechCrunch readers in December and January to vote on the candidate they thought held the best positions on 10 key issues, including the digital divide and visas for foreign-born workers. He announced the poll results in January, saying Obama led the Democratic field in the TechCrunch poll with 60% of the vote, with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards coming in second. On the Republican side of the aisle, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas claimed 73% of the votes, with McCain second.
Arrington also announced his own stand when unveiling the poll’s findings, endorsing one candidate from each party: Obama and McCain.
Obama showed “real leadership and thoughtfulness on the issues,” he said, including his pledge to make network neutrality a priority and promote renewable energy sources.
Obama not only got an endorsement; Arrington said the Democrat “almost certainly” has his personal vote for imparting a sense of optimism about the future that mirrors the Silicon Valley zeitgeist.
Arrington said he had a tougher time endorsing a Republican candidate because he felt each of their positions on technology was flawed. Even though Paul blew away the competition in the TechCrunch reader primary, his opposition to network neutrality and on other issues disqualified him, Arrington said.
McCain, though “standoffish” on some tech subjects, was willing to address “inequities that arise from his hands-off policies,” Arrington said. McCain also offers “pure leadership experience” and “pro-business leanings.”
The tech primary caught the attention of Charlie Rose, who invited Arrington on his television talk show to discuss the candidates and the issues. In that moment, Arrington achieved something rare: He got Washington to pay attention to Silicon Valley. And he says he’s not done yet.
“We are going to be aggressively getting in front of the candidates again to follow up on the issues and to refine their positions,” Arrington said.