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Sage Lazzaro

AI industry-funded 'fellows' are shaping AI regulation

(Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Hello and welcome to Eye on AI.

A report published this past week in Politico revealed how an organization backed by Silicon Valley billionaires and tied to leading AI firms including OpenAI and Anthropic is covertly wielding influence across Washington. The organization, called Open Philanthropy, is funding the salaries of more than a dozen AI fellows working in key congressional offices, across federal agencies, and at influential think tanks where they’re directly influencing AI policy. 

“They’re closely tied to a powerful influence network that’s pushing Washington to focus on the technology’s long-term risks—a focus critics fear will divert Congress from more immediate rules that would tie the hands of tech firms,” reads the article.

As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) leads Congress’s inquiry into how the government should regulate AI, his top three lieutenants on AI legislation—Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), and Todd Young (R-Ind.)—each has an Open Philanthropy-funded fellow working with them on AI or a closely related issue, according to the article. Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who Politico describes as a "powerful member" of the Senate Judiciary Committee that recently unveiled plans for AI licensing, also has one of these fellows in his office. This specific fellow worked at OpenAI immediately before coming to Congress. 

Open Philanthropy-funded fellows are also working at the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and in the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce Committee, both of which are involved in the development of AI rules. 

Just weeks ago when the Senate kicked off its AI listening sessions with tech CEOs, critics took issue with policymakers seeking input largely from the powerful executives who seek to profit from the technology. They were also skeptical of the CEOs stating their support for regulation. Now at a pivotal regulatory moment, the Open Philanthropy operation shows how Silicon Valley forces are going beyond answering lawmaker questions and organizing to trying to sway government officials quietly from the inside. And it’s a reminder of how vulnerable our government is to influence from special interest groups.

The group’s efforts—which many of Politico’s sources criticized as a conflict of interest—are allowed because of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970, which lets nonprofits cover the salaries of fellows working on Capitol Hill or in the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court’s highly-criticized Citizens United ruling in 2010, which gave corporations and special interest groups the green light to spend unlimited funds supporting politicians in elections, also opened up a massive avenue for tech companies to wield influence. Tech groups have also linked up with political consultants to kill bills that go against their best interest. And last year, Big Tech took its lobbying to new heights—Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft spent nearly $69 million lobbying the federal government in 2022, a 5% increase over the prior year. Apple by itself ramped up its total lobbying spend by 44% compared to 2021, while Intel increased its lobbying spend by 72% over the same time period. 

These issues are by no means limited to tech of course—other industries, from energy and pharmaceuticals to real estate and banking, all participate in the same kind of self-interested political dealings. But given the unique role that tech companies play in managing the flow of information, in holding and directing our attention, and in powering much of our economy, the impact of their political influence operations extends far beyond the tech industry itself. With AI, the tech industry’s reach into our daily lives will only increase, making it more important than ever to understand the commercial motives shaping our regulations.

And with that, here’s the rest of this week’s AI news.

Sage Lazzaro

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