Prior to that, Kovacevich led Google’s 15-person US policy strategy and external affairs team. In that role, he drove the company’s US public policy campaigns on privacy, security, antitrust, intellectual property, intermediary liability, telecommunications, advertising, taxation and workforce issues—as well as its partnerships with conservative, progressive, consumer and civil rights organizations.
Kovacevich is an active member of the tech policy community, having served as a board member for the Internet Association, Information Technology Industry Council, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Internet Education Foundation and National Cyber Security Alliance, as well as an advisory council member for the Center for Democracy and Technology.
He spoke recently at a Brunswick webinar moderated by Senior Advisor Debbie Frost. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’re a self-described techno optimist. Can you tell us why that is and if it's still the case today, particularly when people are so wary of the role tech plays in the fabric of our society?
I call myself a techno optimist with a pragmatic asterisk. I’ve always enjoyed working where the future meets the present—where the stuff that's exciting for the future meets the concern of the present as represented by policymakers and their constituents.
The way in which technology has enabled protests and whistleblowing and dissent—progressives have wanted that for a long time. What troubled me was that a lot of Democrats stopped viewing tech as “their” industry, or our industry, when Donald Trump got elected.
The Congressional Democrats went from thinking that the internet was this thing that we used to get Barack Obama elected to the thing that the Russians used to get Trump elected. Many of them quickly turned from techno optimist to techno pessimist. But Democratic voters show consistently positive attitudes toward tech. That's a big gap that we're trying to fill.
Tell me about the Chamber of Progress and what your plans and goals are.
I had been a consumer of trade associations for much of my career and was starting to see ways in which trade associations were failing companies, or at least coming up short in terms of the value that they were delivering. First, several trade associations that I was a part of were basically being run by company member representatives and had devolved into companies vetoing each other back and forth. That leads to the association losing its effectiveness over time.
Secondly, there are more and more public interest groups on the left that are anti-industry. As those groups got a mix of funding from companies and foundations, they faced pressure to take only foundation money and be anti-industry, which left a void on the center left.
I founded Chamber of Progress to respond to those dynamics. We don’t have a company member board. Companies don’t have a vote or a veto, which is a similar setup to the US Chamber of Commerce.
When I pitch to companies, I tell them, "I want you to be 70% thrilled that we're going be an effective bulldog for you and 30% begrudgingly tolerant of the rest."
And I believe that value proposition is better than “20% ho-hum happy” with what you're getting from a bland, neutral association. Some companies are game for that, some companies are not.
We're also expressly center left: we’re trying to articulate a path for the moderate Democrat who may have some concerns about tech but isn't ready to throw the whole industry overboard.
I think it's safe to say that it's going to be choppy waters for tech this year. Can you share some of your predictions for what we might see from the industry?
One of the things that guides me in our work is the understandable anxiety around the power of big tech.
Ultimately, whether the debate is about anti-trust, or speech content moderation or privacy, they are all just different components of the debate on how tech carries power. And the big dividing line among Democrats in the United States is what do you want to do about that power.
Polling that we've done suggests that the crowd of Democrats pushing to break up the big companies is no more than 25% to 30%. The rest are interested in harnessing that the power. But that group is not as vocal. So the anxiety about tech's power is going to continue.
And then the argument is over how that manifests itself in the individual debates on policy. I think on content moderation, Congress will do nothing. There's no agreement there. Republican states will continue to pass content moderation bills this year, mostly focused on transparency and disclosure. Those bills will probably all be ultimately found unconstitutional. There will be plenty of litigation. Trump is suing Twitter and Facebook.
And in my estimation, all these cases will be found in favor of the platforms. The courts are going to end up affirming the platforms’ own First Amendment rights to set whatever rules they want to. All these Republican lawsuits are actually going to end up strengthening platforms' editorial rights.
On anti-trust, at least here in the United States, the big debate is going to be around these nondiscrimination bills that affect the big tech companies. And as always, you're going to see a lot of company-versus-company industry stuff. For example, you've got Match, Spotify and Epic Games trying to pass bills to hobble Apple and Google on app store rules.
You’ve also got Walmart, Walgreens and other retailers trying to do the same to Amazon on online marketplace rules in a way that also hurts Etsy and eBay. Most of those things I think will end up in a draw, because I believe fundamentally most legislators don't really care that much about picking sides on this.
What we’ll be watching is the Federal Trade Commission, because the Chair, Lina Khan, will probably start a privacy rulemaking there.
One of the other things that we're sort of starting to dabble in is crypto. Crypto has a Democratic problem. Most of crypto's biggest champions in Washington are Republicans, but most of crypto's biggest users are Democrats, so there's a big gap there that we're going to try and remedy.