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Tech Lobby's Souped-Up, Focused PAC

Politics: Now led by ex-congressman from Microsoft turf, it's generous and has a simplified agenda.


PALO ALTO — Someone has drawn a strange doodle on the white board in TechNet's conference room: a balloon, a rectangular shape and a few nonsensical squiggles.

So, a visitor inquires, is that a diagram of the political action committee's secret strategy for consistently getting Silicon Valley's objectives achieved in Washington?

Rick White, the group's new leader, looks up at the board and laughs. No, the secret is safe, he jokes.

In reality, there is no secret to the success of TechNet--short for Technology Network--which in just four years has become one of the country's most influential political action committees.

Founded by a bipartisan group of top Silicon Valley chief executives who wanted to present a unified voice to lawmakers, TechNet has made a point of picking a few big issues important to the industry and seeing that they get addressed.

Last year, TechNet was key to persuading the government to grant more visas for foreign high-tech workers and establish permanent trade relations with China.

Now TechNet and its all-star crew--including CEOs John Chambers of Cisco Systems Inc. and Craig Barrett of Intel, and venture capitalists including Jim Barksdale, formerly of Netscape--have added White to the team. The former Republican congressman from the Seattle suburbs became TechNet chief last month.

TechNet members plan to meet Thursday to hammer out this year's priorities. Among the likelier possibilities:

* Developing a federal Internet privacy standard to replace a patchwork of state regulations.

* Education reforms aimed at improving math and science performance.

* Changes in the accounting system used for mergers and acquisitions.

"There is this wonderful window of opportunity for the technology community that won't always be there," White said in an interview at TechNet's headquarters. "Everybody wants to do some things to make sure that this boom can continue. The Democrats like us, the Republicans like us."

With good reason. The $171,000 that TechNet doled out in campaign contributions in the 2000 election, according to Federal Election Commission records, flowed liberally to candidates in both parties. George W. Bush and Al Gore were recipients.

There are no national elections this year, so the 300 executives who belong to TechNet can more easily concentrate on figuring out a common agenda.

Many members place a privacy bill at the top of the list because there is no uniform standard governing how much information Web sites must disclose about what they do with users' personal data. With more than half the states coming up with their own measures, e-commerce companies fear a regulatory maze that could slow growth.

"Industry's initial stance vis-a-vis privacy was self-regulation," said TechNet Executive Council member Eric Benhamou, chairman of network equipment maker 3Com Corp. Now, "we recognize the inevitability of a more active role of government."

With TechNet focusing on just a few issues, some key topics will be left to individual companies and other trade organizations: Internet taxation; subsidies for high-speed access in rural areas; and reductions in the list of tech components that can't be exported for security reasons.

"TechNet has a good reputation and is received well in Washington, but what you're seeing as the industry matures is, more and more of the companies are committing resources to their own government-relations efforts," said Rep. Cal Dooley, a California Democrat who works closely with the industry. "You have even smaller companies starting to invest in representation."

There wasn't always such a close connection between the high-tech world and government.

White, 47, recalls that when he was first elected to Congress in 1994, "the technology industry really did everything it possibly could to avoid Washington, D.C. . . . The technology community had been incredibly successful having nothing to do with government."

On the other hand, few lawmakers really understood technology and the sweeping cultural changes it was ushering in.

White was no super techie, either; he didn't have a computer until the late 1980s. But with Microsoft Corp. in his district, he got familiar with its issues. He founded the Internet caucus and sponsored measures limiting government control over the Web.

After losing his seat in 1998, White went back to his Seattle law firm, Perkins Coie, which counted and RealNetworks among its clients. He helped software start-ups get financing and worked part time as general counsel for one of them, OneName Corp.

TechNet has a budget of $4 million and just 25 staffers. The PAC has opened up regional offices in other high-tech hubs, such as Boston and Austin, Texas, and White would like to see new ones this year, perhaps in northern Virginia and Seattle.

That will make for a busy schedule for a man who already plans to split time between Silicon Valley, Washington and Seattle, where his wife and four children live. But White is excited about his mission and has made a long-term commitment.

"We've done a bunch of great stuff flying a little bit by the seat of our pants," he said. "It's my job to build an organization that really is able to do that on an ongoing basis."


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