CfA Releases Report Showing “Startup” Lobbying Group Engine Deeply Tied to Google and Its Big Tech Agenda

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 30, 2018

Contact: Daniel Stevens, dstevens@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group focused on public accountability, released a new report, “The Lobbyist in the Garage,” revealing that Engine, a San Francisco-based nonprofit claiming to represent the “voice of startups in government,” is little more than an apparent AstroTurf lobbying group created by current and former Google employees to advance Google’s interests.

Read the report here.

CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens stated, “While Engine was marketing itself as a counterweight to corporate lobbying heavyweights like Google, it was taking donations from Google and parroting Google’s positions on a wide range of policy issues. It appears that Google is working closely with Engine to stealthily advance its corporate agenda under the false guise of promoting the interests of startups.”

Founded in 2011, Engine says its mission is to help policymakers understand the needs of startups and help startups have their voice heard in Washington.  Documents from 2011, however, reveal Google’s public policy manager, Derek Slater, played an instrumental role in creating the group. In November 2011, Silicon Valley writer Paul Spinrad wrote in an email that Slater was “starting to pursue the big and exciting prospect of a new political advocacy org, Engine Advocacy.”  Around that time, Slater was promoting Engine from his Google+ account.

As for Engine’s public faces, two of its three founders, Joshua To and Josh Mendelsohn, previously spent several years working at Google. At about the same time they founded Engine, Mendelsohn and To also created a tech incubator called Hattery.  Engine initially shared office space with Hattery, and Google later acquired part of the incubator and most of its employees.  To later returned to work at Google.

Between 2013 and 2015, the only years for which data is available, Engine Advocacy, the 501c4 arm of Engine, and its 501c3 nonprofit counterpart, the Engine Research Foundation, received a combined $4.4 million in contributions.  Neither group discloses its donors, but Google disclosed an unknown amount of support for Engine on its transparency page. Several members of Engine’s board of directors and its advisory board also have financial relationships with Google.

Since its founding, Engine has consistently lobbied for policy issues important to Google, while claiming to represent the policy interests of small tech startups. For instance, Engine was a key Google ally in recent efforts to fight legislation aimed at reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to hold websites accountable for knowingly facilitating the sex trafficking of underage victims. Engine has also supported Google on patent reform, an issue of major financial importance to the company. Engine also funded research studies in Europe that closely aligned with Google’s lobbying priorities.

Stevens continued, “Public officials need to be aware that this ‘startup’ advocacy group, Engine, is really in bed with Silicon Valley’s foremost D.C.-influence machine, whose interests are often in conflict with those of disruptive entrepreneurs. Founders deserve to have their voices heard – not drowned out by established corporate behemoths.”

Campaign for Accountability is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, nonpartisan watchdog organization that uses research, litigation and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.