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Facebook CEO Plays With Fire, Gets Burned

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency

Barely one month after it launched its first advocacy campaign, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's new Fwd.us political action committee has already shed two key, high profile members over a controversy involving the Keystone XL pipeline. The two now-former members are none other than Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and David Sacks, founder of Yammer.

While that might seem to be an odd pairing, take a closer look at the background of Musk and Sacks and the pieces fall into place. It could also provide grounds for predicting who might be the next member to jump ship (hint: Google, much?).

A brief primer on Fwd.us

Fwd.us is a new 501(c)(4) organization, a tax-exempt category that is typically used by civic leagues, social welfare organizations, and local employee associations. The group's founder and President is Joe Green, who also founded Causes and NationBuilder.

Zuckerberg announced the new group in April 10 in a Washington Post editorial, declaring that its main purpose would be to advance the cause of bipartisan immigration reform and noting that current policy is depriving the U.S. tech industry of access to global brainpower.

He lists Reid Hoffman (Linked In), Eric Schmidt (Google), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!) and Max Levchin (Yelp, Paypal) among the founding tech leaders of Fwd.us. Other supporters listed on the group's website include some familiar names, such as Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn).

The Fwd.us website also lists major contributors including Reed Hastings (Netflix), Andrew Mason (Groupon), Marissa Mayer, Eric Schmidt, Kevin Systrom (Instagram), and Padmasree Warrior (Cisco).

John Donohoe of eBay is also associated with the group according to media reports, but we couldn't find him on the website. If you can spot him, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Fwd.us and the Keystone XL Pipeline

The controversy erupted right out of the box last month, when Fwd.us launched its first television ads touting U.S. senators for immigration reform, Mark Begich (D-AK) and Linday Graham (R-SC), which also mentioned the pair's support for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

That elicited a furious response from the advocacy group Presente.org and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, which said in part:

"Zuckerberg and FWD.Us shouldn’t sell out the future of our planet and the health of our families to score political points. That’s why we are asking them to stop patting politicians on the back for supporting dirty fuel schemes, and to start taking action that’s in the best interest of all Americans.”

According to a report in AllThingsD.com, by last Friday the League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn.org and other advocacy groups were issuing an ad boycott on Facebook, at least temporarily, to protest Zuckerberg's support-by-proxy for the pipeline.

Elon Musk, David Sacks and Fwd.us

For Musk in particular, the ad campaign for two pro-Keystone legislators must have come across as a slap in the face. As the head of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors, Chairman of  SolarCity and trustee of the X Prize Foundation, Musk is pickled in renewable energy issues.

Aside from Musk's sincere interest in clean energy itself, the bottom line for Tesla Motors is that electric vehicles lose all there "zero emission" luster if fossil fuels remain an important energy source for electric power plants.

That goes double for SolarCity, which has positioned itself for mainstream breakthrough partly by, you guessed it, packaging its home rooftop solar installation business with home EV charging stations.

As for David Sacks, his affiliation with Yammer doesn't provide much of a hint about his equally fast reaction to the ad campaign, though his career history has overlapped with Musk through PayPal.

Thank You For Smoking is where you might find a bit of a clue. The film, from Sack's indie production company Room 9 Entertainment, chronicles the adventures of a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. If some of that background rubbed off on Sacks, he would be familiar with the lobbying organization Heartland Institute, which is notorious for promoting misinformation about climate change using the same "playbook" it deployed to delay tighter regulations on the tobacco industry.

Why would a tech company support Keystone?

One of our favorite things to do here at Triple Pundit is to chronicle the progress that certain tech companies have made in transitioning to renewable energy. That focus on energy is an imperative for the sustainability of the industry, which depends on an ever-growing army of energy-sucking data centers and servers to feed its ever-growing array of products and services.

That's why we're putting our money on Google to jump ship next. Aside from aggressively pursuing leadership in energy efficiency and renewable energy for data centers, just last month Google proposed a new energy rate for utility companies that could send the U.S. renewable energy sector soaring into the mainstream.

Among many other actions, earlier this year Google also gave $2.65 million to an organization called the Energy Foundation, which will go to help translate some of its business energy strategies into useful tools for individual households.

Given the hot competition between Yahoo and Google for sustainable data center leadership, it wouldn't be surprising if Yahoo also gives Fwd.us. the slip.

Just take a look back as recently as last September, when Yahoo joined about 20 major corporations in a letter to Congress that basically smacked down presidential candidate Mitt Romney for failing to come out in support of wind power.

Come to think of it, if John Donohoe is affiliated with Fwd.us, it might not be for long. Ebay is known for its green data center activities and when we last checked in with them, they were all excited about powering their flagship data center in Utah with fuel cells, which will use reclaimed biogas from waste sources.

And, in another development, GigaOm founder Om Malik issued a tweet encouraging Hoffman and tech venture capitalist John Doerr to follow Musk's lead.

The irony of all is that, in his Fwd.us editorial, Zuckerberg referenced the oil industry as an example of what the knowledge-centric tech industry is not, writing that "unlike oil fields, someone else knowing something doesn’t prevent you from knowing it, too."

Looks like Fwd.us might want to adopt the corollary of that line, to the effect that someone else supporting someone that you don't support, will prevent you from supporting both of them, too.

[Image: Facebook sticker by theanthonyryan]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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