The Kochs' nonprofit empire is building a network of libertarian hackers, coders and designers
Generation Opportunity teams up with Lincoln Labs to host hackathons across the country
SAN FRANCISCO -- It was nearing 2 a.m., the AC had been shut off and the air in the century-old downtown office of Brigade Media, a tech startup that hosted a hackathon in conjunction with a libertarian tech conference here, was starting to feel heavy. A small group of unwashed, sleep-deprived coders toiled quietly over their computers while a young man in a corner was passed out on a beanbag chair with a laptop balancing on his chest.
The hackathon — an event in which teams compete to build new apps and programs within a short period of time — was part of the first inaugural Reboot conference where hundreds of conservative hackers, coders, designers, tech entrepreneurs and conservative political activists joined some of the nation’s top Republicans to strategize and — ideally — emerge with The Next Great App. As an incentive, the conference organizers offered $10,000 in prize money to be awarded to the best ideas.
The gathering was the first inaugural conference put on by Lincoln Labs, a year-old club of politically-minded technologists started by three millennials with backgrounds in Republican politics: Garrett Johnson, a former aide to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Aaron Ginn, who worked on Mitt Romney’s digital team; and Chris Abrams, who runs digital operations for Vanity Fair magazine. The group — which adopts the label “conservatarian,” a popular buzzword for the ideological coalition between conservatives and libertarians — was born in 2013 in the aftermath of the failed Republican attempt to regain control of the White House, in which President Obama’s mastery of digital campaigning and data collection trounced Republican efforts to match it.
Over the past year, Lincoln Labs has grown to represent the epicenter of the right-wing tech scene as it struggles to make a dent in an industry traditionally dominated by the political left.
For most of Lincoln Lab’s existence, the group has relied upon financial backing and support from the orbit of activist groups that are part of Charles and David Koch’s donor network. Last weekend’s conference was sponsored by an array of groups from the Koch network: Generation Opportunity, its youth outreach group; the Libre Initiative, its Hispanic organization; Americans for Prosperity, its lead political advocacy arm; and i360, which collects data on behalf of the Koch network. Microsoft, Google, and Stampede, a political consulting firm that provides campaign services to conservative candidates, also served as sponsors for the event.
With Generation Opportunity doing most of the financial legwork, the Koch network has invested in Lincoln Labs hackathons around the country, holding similar, yet smaller, gatherings in California, Seattle, Chicago and Miami.
The network’s involvement in funding a growing community of like-minded technologists has not come without controversy. In June 2013, Lincoln Labs attempted to hold its first hackathon at the San Francisco offices of StumbleUpon, where founders Ginn and Abrams worked at the time. The Charles Koch Institute sponsored the event, which spawned a small but vocal outcry from StumbleUpon employees enraged that a group bearing the name of one of the high-profile libertarian brothers, who are a regular target of Democratic politicians, would hold a weekend event at their office.
The stir forced Ginn and Hughes to move the event off campus. Since then, Generation Opportunity and other groups that are linked to the Koch network but don’t bear the family name in their title have sponsored Lincoln Labs’ hackathon events.
The internal outcry at StumbleUpon last year underscores Silicon Valley’s image as a place that can feel hostile to the right. Democratic politicians dominate districts in Northern California, and a majority of donations that come from the wealthy region find their way into Democratic pockets.
“If you have a philosophical free-market libertarian bent in the industry, it does makes you stand out a little bit,” said CapLinked co-founder Eric Jackson during a panel discussion at the conference. “You have to be careful how you position yourself. You have to be careful what you say in public.”
But those data points don’t necessarily tell the whole story of Silicon Valley’s relationship with politics. Although many who work in the tech industry are apolitical, the combination of new, disruptive — to use another buzzword of the day — technologies coming out of the area and the massive wealth they generate has fostered a community of tech-savvy libertarians who would just as soon tell government regulators and tax collectors to mind their own damn business.
“There’s a leftward bent with a burgeoning libertarian, conservatarian streak emerging,” said James Windon, the president of Brigade, the company that hosted the hackathon. “If you had to categorize it, it’s probably socially progressive with some fiscal conservatism.”
That’s enough of an opening for enterprising Republican lawmakers, who are beginning to notice that there’s an opportunity to finally make inroads here. For example, they see how state and local union-backed taxi commissions try to choke ride-sharing apps such as Uber and how special interests that represent the hospitality industry work to undermine businesses like Airbnb, which connects private homeowners with potential renters. At the conference, Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul delivered speeches and joined panel discussions, while Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker piped in their own comments through video presentations. The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee flew in their top tech brass from Washington, D.C.
For Paul, a possible future Republican presidential candidate, the trip to Northern California was an opportunity to meet with tech entrepreneurs from both sides of the aisle, a group Paul hopes shares his antagonism for unbridled government spying and questionable data collecting practices.
“I come out here and people say, ‘Oh, I love President Obama. We’re all for President Obama, we’re from the tech community.’ Why?” Paul asked in his address at the conference. “Why would you be? He’s not for innovation. He’s not for freedom. He’s for the protectionism crowd.”
But votes and campaign donations for Republicans are only part of what the right seeks from Silicon Valley. California voters, after all, haven’t helped elect a Republican presidential candidate since George H. W. Bush took the baton from Ronald Reagan more than a quarter-century ago.
The right also wants its talent.
This is where Lincoln Labs — with an assist from the Koch network — comes in.
Many of the hackers, programmers and designers who participated in the Lincoln Labs hackathon aren’t Republicans, or even conservatives. But by holding the events with the promise of cash prizes, Lincoln Labs has found a way to connect issues raised by D.C. political operatives who don’t know the first thing about coding with solutions from technologists eager to solve problems (and maybe earn a bit of cash on the side).
Finding a broad swath of conservatives and libertarians among the community of California technologists, though, is still a challenge, Lincoln Labs attendees and organizers said.
“Conservatives and libertarians in tech are a bit of an endangered species,” said Kmele Foster, a co-founder of Freethink Media and co-host of the Fox Business show "The Independents."“Usually when you hear diversity, folks think gender, race, ethnicity. I think that’s a bit myopic.”
But when Lincoln Labs began building a safe space for right-minded techies last year, the “endangered species” quickly came out from hiding.
“The Republican Party has struggled in its organic community building,” Ginn told me during the conference. “What we did was not to help the party. We were just like-minded, and we were like, there’s got to be more people like us. And there was.”
Surprisingly, many of the apps built during the hackathon weren’t partisan at all. The team that won the contest created an app that revealed gaps in police coverage by creating a map that compared incidents of crime with police presence. One team pitched a service that would allow organizations to poll supporters by text, while another turned polling into a game by building an app that created public policy-themed quizzes that the originator could then use to gather data on players.
But even if the ideas don’t explicitly promote a policy position, conference organizers said, their work still helps their side.
“These ideas advance the cause,” Ginn told me. “It’s reducing the size and scope of what’s needed as a bureaucracy.”
Beyond providing the space and financial incentive to create new apps, the conference also aimed to connect those technologists with operatives interested in using their creations for their cause.
“This bridges that gap of, how do people like us in the political world get involved with individuals like that who are apolitical?” said Adam Stryker, the chief technology officer at Americans for Prosperity. “Evidently 10,000 bucks at a hackathon is one way to get people involved. Free market approaches.”
To supplement the occasional brick-and-mortar hackathon gathering Generation Opportunity has built an online hub for libertarian technologists to connect year-round with politicos and entrepreneurs. The group has built a portal called Liberty.IO as an online space where activists can submit problems they would like to solve or ideas for better apps and connect with designers and developers who know how to build them.
The upside for the Koch-backed groups? By serving as the home for the libertarian tech community, they get first crack at top tech talent that’s potentially sympathetic to the “conservatarian” cause — and help with everything from smarter data collection to better campaign practices.
And of course, there’s the added benefit of funding projects that they see as helping put a million little tears into the fabric of the state. As many of the activists here see it, the tech revolution is one of their most effective ways to make the services provided by the government less relevant.
“Whether the government likes it or not, there’s going to be a revolution,” Paul said during his talk. “One of the things that intrigues me about progress and all the stuff that comes from the Internet in this digital age is whether or not something is going to replace the government.”
Paul added some parting advice to the group: “Don’t be depressed about how bad government is. Use your ingenuity, use your big head to think of solutions so the marketplace can figure what the idiots and trolls in Washington will never come up with.”