The New Statesman has analysed federal lobbying data from 15 leading tech companies to shed light on the growth in spending over the past decade that has made Big Tech such a dominant political force on Capitol Hill.
We used data from the Center for Responsive Politics, and Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) reports to analyse Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, IBM, SAP, Intel, Uber, Lyft, Alibaba, Huawei, ZTE and TikTok owners Bytedance.
Communications and electronics are the fourth highest-spending sector in US federal lobbying, with almost 700 companies spending $436 million in 2020. The 15 companies the New Statesman analysed make up just under a quarter of that total.
The titans of Big Tech have faced a reckoning over the past few years. As their lobbying spend continues to rise, people rightly question the influence they are having over legislation. But experts who spoke to the New Statesman say the patterns aren’t as simple as they may seem on the surface, and the rise in spending has been coupled with increasingly sophisticated methods of influence.
Nien-hê Hsieh, a professor of business ethics at Harvard University says that in the 1990s, “there was a real reluctance or reticence to engage in Washington” from the leading tech companies of the day.
“Some people probably even thought that technology is the wave of the future as opposed to government or tech or politics and so it was maybe also in some ways framed as apolitical,” he says. “I think a lot of the promise of these new technologies was that they would in some sense transcend politics.”
In the early 2000s, the Microsoft antitrust suit set a precedent for federal involvement in tech companies, and proved that government and tech couldn’t be separated. Since then, tech lobbying on Capitol Hill has seen huge growth.
The early 2010s saw huge growth in lobbying spending by tech companies. A plateau in the late Obama years was followed by another steep increase once Trump took office. But in recent years some major players have slowed or even decreased their spending, suggesting that major corporations are becoming more sophisticated in their approach to wielding power on Capitol Hill.
Despite being slowed down by the pandemic, overall 2020 federal lobbying figures barely decreased from 2019 – down from $3.51bn to $3.49bn. The same is seen in Big Tech, with spending by the 15 companies dropping from $99m to $96.3m. Daniel Auble, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, says first quarter spending in 2020 was “a record, basically the biggest quarter we’ve ever seen”.
Jane Chung, an advocate lobbyist on Big Tech at Public Citizen, a non-profit that describes itself as “lobbyists for the people”, says this huge growth in tech spending can be linked with a shift in public and political opinion of big tech. Last year’s report by the House Subcommittee on Antitrust is considered by many to be a landmark step in curbing the power of Big Tech.
The rise of Big Tech’s power
Facebook’s entry into the federal lobbying game can be seen from the beginning of the decade. Exponential spending growth in the early 2010s and throughout the Trump presidency has made Facebook the biggest spender in Big Tech alongside Amazon, which has also been rapidly increasing its spending year on year.
While many of the companies we analysed decreased their spending slightly in 2020, Facebook and Amazon both increased theirs significantly. Facebook upped their federal lobbying spend by 18 per cent to $19.7m, and Amazon by 12 per cent to $18.7m.
Among the bills Facebook lobbied on is the Earn It Act, a law intended to prevent child exploitation that has met criticism from privacy groups. In early versions it proposed to crack down on social media sites that did not meet certain standards for handling of child abuse imagery, but tech companies argued this could be an “attack on encryption” by allowing law enforcement to access users’ private messages.
Among Facebook’s most lobbied bills in 2020 was the Honest Ads Act, a piece of legislation Mark Zuckerberg has publicly supported that would require more transparency on political advertising on social networks.
Facebook also lobbied the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would have given news outlets the ability to collectively negotiate their distribution terms with Google and Facebook, which currently dominate the digital advertising market.
In 2020 Amazon lent its voice to some of the most lobbied bills, including the Cares Act and the Heroes Act, which together provided more than $5trn in economic stimulus amid the Covid-19 pandemic, in March and May. It also lobbied on the Inform Consumers Act, which would require more transparency from third-party sellers on online marketplaces such as Amazon.
Amazon has also weighed in on hot-button legislation, such as the Equality Act, which Biden has committed to passing in the first 100 days of his presidency. Amazon has been vocal about its support for the Raise the Wage Act, and outspoken in pushing large employers to raise their minimum wage to $15.
Chung says that although the reason behind some lobbying is self-evident, at other times it may not be so clear. One of the things Public Citizen does, she says, is conduct in-depth research on a company to try to figure out its vested interest in the bill.
“I would be very surprised if there were indeed any philanthropic motivations behind their lobbying,” she says.
Also, says Chung, sometimes a company might lobby for an issue that seems counterintuitive to its business interests, so that it can be included in the discussions and shape the legislation from an early stage. For example, she says, Amazon has been outspoken in calling for price gouging regulations. But a federal ban on the practice may aid Amazon by overriding a complex patchwork of state rules.
“[Companies will] go behind the scenes and, to a large extent, be able to influence what is in that bill and ensure that it’s not as harmful as it could be,” says Chung
Google, however, shows a different story. From 2011 to 2018, its federal lobbying spend far exceeded that of its competitors, reaching a height of $21.9m in 2018.
But it has decreased its spending in the past two years. A 2019 report in the Wall Street Journal said that Google had fired many of its lobbyists amid government antitrust scrutiny.
“There was at least one, maybe two years, where they were the biggest spender among companies, so maybe that was too much attention for them,” says Auble of the Center for Responsive Politics. “Maybe they felt that they could be similarly effective with a smaller footprint.”
Similarly to Facebook, in 2020 Google lobbied on the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. It also lobbied on the Cares Act.
In 2018 and 2017, it lobbied across a number of bills that directly affected its business, such as the Email Privacy Act, which demands law enforcement to obtain a warrant to access private communications stored on Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other providers, and the the AV (Autonomous Vehicles) Start Act and Self Drive Act, which would affect Google’s self-driving car projects.
Barry Lynn, director of the Open Markets Institute, cautions against seeing Google’s reduction in lobbying spending as the company minimising its political activity, but rather just targeting it more tactically.
“Google has actually had an extremely sophisticated operation ever since they built it,” Lynn says. “It’s not just aimed at Washington, it’s aimed at states, it’s aimed at localities, it’s aimed at companies, and it’s aimed at academics.”
New president, new rules?
Looking ahead to Biden’s term in office, experts anticipate that the relationship between Big Tech and the White House will be more fractious than it was under Barack Obama.
“They’re afraid of what these corporations are doing to American politics, to American society, to the American commercial system,” says Lynn. “Unlike a Warren or Sanders team where this was top of mind, that’s not the case with Biden. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not on their mind in a very big way.”
Obama had a close relationship with many major players in Big Tech, not least Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt. While there are some names from Facebook and Google among the Biden transition team, experts say the shift of public and political opinion makes it unlikely Biden’s administration would want to be seen as having the same Big Tech links that Obama did.
“There is almost zero per cent chance that they would try and slow down what’s already happening,” says Lynn. “It’d be seen as taking the side of Google or Facebook, it just wouldn’t be politically smart. And these are smart political people.”
The data is just part of a much bigger picture and on its own can only tell us so much. The spending amounts show staffing costs for lobbyists, both in-house and through external lobbying firms, who meet with legislators and executive branch agencies to advocate on behalf of the corporation. But it does not show which members of Congress or committees firms met with or when the meetings occurred.
Lobbying is a complex web, as the DC lobbyist Edda Collins Coleman explains. “It’s about getting that face time with [members of Congress] so they know who you are, their staffer knows you and letting them know that you’re that subject matter expert they need,” she says.
Spending more money can get companies more lobbyist time, expertise and connections, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee results. Instead, Chung says spending figures can be used as an indicator of the importance the company places on the piece of legislation, and how it will affect them.
While the lobbying register requires companies to disclose which legislation they are lobbying on, it does not require them to reveal the specifics of their meetings, or even whether they are for or against the bill.
Big Tech’s most lobbied bills of 2020 included the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorised over $700bn in spending for the US military, and the Cares and Heroes Acts. Among these enormous bills, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to figure out a company’s vested interest.
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Another important caveat is that this data shows federal lobbying, not state-level spending. Experts say that on some issues, state lobbying is even more important. In recent years, Uber and Lyft mounted a huge lobbying effort in California against legislation that would have given their drivers employee benefits, for example. Companies also buy influence through trade organisations and the funding of political campaigns.
Investment Monitor: Big Tech braces for EU regulatory assault Part of New Statesman Media Group
Lynn’s Open Markets Institute focuses on the threat corporate power and monopolies pose to democracy and society. He says the discussion needs to broaden beyond lobbying and political spending, to include all the different ways corporations wield power: through think tank and academic funding, investing in the media and content moderation, which allows them to control the public conversation itself.
“If you become the dominant employer within a congressional district, the Congressperson from that district is going to become less likely to attack you, even if they believe that you are bad for democracy, that you’re bad for the nation,” says Lynn. “They have such incredible wealth and power already. And, if anything, they’re becoming more sophisticated, using this kind of indirect exercise of power to achieve political ends.”
This article was co-commissioned with our sister site Tech Monitor as part of a new series on the Big Tech backlash.