It’s a time-honored pattern in Washington. A new technological marvel appears, and its proprietors — at least initially — pay little heed to Congress and the potential havoc that federal lawmakers can wreak. Witness Microsoft and Google, which were flourishing entities before finally wising up and staffing substantial D.C. outposts.
Twitter seems to be following suit. So far it does not appear to have a D.C. lobbyist or media consultant. But it does have one thing Microsoft and Google didn’t have: a loyal constituency of Members, many of whom have an up-close and personal relationship with the social-networking service.
So far, however, Twitter executives are taking a decidedly casual approach to the regulatory and legal morass they one day might face.
Twitter management did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the company’s lobbying plans. Secretary of the Senate records show that Twitter has not opened a K Street office. And there are no suggestions in news accounts that Twitter has hired an in-town public relations firm, either.
So for now, Twitter Chairman Jack Dorsey and CEO Evan Williams appear to be going it alone, promoting their product themselves to lawmakers, the executive branch and to the wider public on television talk shows.
But given the privacy and liability issues at stake, influence-makers warn that the company risks making amateur mistakes that could have dramatic consequences.
By leaning too heavily on its sudden popularity, particularly among Twitter-evangelizing lawmakers, it may only be a matter of time before its issues — and its bottom line — are at stake.
“In addition to death and taxes, the only certainty in life is that Congress and federal agencies will seek to regulate emerging technologies,— commented one telecom lobbyist. “That’s why you have to be in Washington to explain the nuances of the technologies and the benefits to society.
“Like moths to a flame, media attention attracts legislative and regulatory attention,— the lobbyist added. “Legislators just can’t help themselves.—
According to Web traffic provider Alexa.com, Twitter’s popularity began to surge in early 2009.
The privately held company, which started in 2006, grew steadily in popularity toward the end of 2008 and has grown some 150 percent in the past three months alone.
The Web site’s sudden popularity nationwide appears to have coincided with an obvious uptick in high-profile users, celebrities and politicians that undoubtedly helped vault the online application — until recently a Web gadget known only to urban hipsters, high school students and technophiles — into the stratosphere.
Twitter was the 35th most popular Web site on the Internet last week, according to Alexa.
Actor Ashton Kutcher tweets. President Barack Obama apparently tweets as well — to 1.6 million followers using 140 characters or less. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) tweets, as does libertarian icon Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
But no Member appears to be more Twitter-inclined than Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who first encountered the Web site by way of her teenagers. McCaskill’s office declined to speak on the record about the company, but the Show Me State lawmaker is well-known as one of the Web application’s most prolific users, posting more than 750 items and boasting some 28,000 followers.
The Senator typed out her first message just days before Obama’s inauguration, apparently to update constituents without tickets on the festivities.
On Jan. 17, the lawmaker asked the online world: “I’m thinking about twittering during all of the hoopla over the next few days. What do you think?—
But that was just the beginning. After all of the inaugural bunting was put away, McCaskill continued to Twitter, soon working politics into her posts. On the morning of Feb. 2, she wrote: “I’m going on MSNBC just before 1 eastern and then 115 on CNN. Limiting executive pay and eco recovery act are topics.—
While on CNN’s “Newsroom— later that day, McCaskill bashed the executives: “They don’t get it. These people are idiots. You can’t use taxpayer money to pay out $18 billion in bonuses.—
Later this spring, a McCaskill aide read on Dorsey’s Twitter feed that he was making a social call to Washington, D.C.
The staff assistant, who knew that the Twitter founder grew up in Missouri, asked him if the one-time constituent would like a Capitol tour.
On May 12, Dorsey visited McCaskill’s office and sat down with the Senator. According to his Twitter posts, Dorsey then noted he was “meeting the staff at the @whitehouse.—
About six weeks after Dorsey visited McCaskill’s office, another social-networking site brought on its first lobbyist, according to Secretary of the Senate filings.
Facebook, which is also privately held and run by tech wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg, hired Timothy Sparapani after an advertising scheme agitated users over privacy concerns.
And Twitter may well be next in lawmakers’ sights, says one Democratic lobbyist.
“People are going to choose to bring their name up whether [Twitter executives] choose to or not,— the lobbyist said. “They certainly don’t need someone here to promote their technology and hire consultants and lobbyists to spread their name around; that’s going to happen without them — but that’s the point.
“It’s not like an energy startup that’s looking to get funds or attention in the energy bill, that needs to come here, hit the pavement and run around on the Hill to get attention,— the lobbyist continued. “And the [Twitter executive] with a hometown Member connection just isn’t going to cut it.—
Twitter also appears to be shying away from joining a trade association, including the Information Technology Industry Council. ITIC lobbyist Ralph Hellmann, a Republican, said Twitter does not “have big enough issues yet, with the key word being yet.’—
“As they grow — much as Google and Microsoft grew — they will need representation. You don’t know when privacy legislation could directly or indirectly hit a service like Twitter,— Hellmann said.
“Do you wait until you have a significant problem that can hit your bottom line and then you get representation? Or do you get representation now in Washington to make sure you’re ready when the first big issue for your company makes headlines?—
With Twitter’s high profile in the recent Iranian election and elsewhere abroad, Hellmann also reckoned the company’s near-term concerns may be “more international than domestic.—
“They’re going to have to talk to people at the State Department, Commerce and [Office of the U.S. Trade Representative] as much as they’re going to be talking to Congress or the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission about domestic issues,— he said.