When it comes to formulating government policies, Silicon Valley's most powerful tech executives always have a seat at the table – literally, as was the case during the White House tech summits we saw happen last year. They also make sure their collective voice is heard through lobbying the House, Senate, White House and federal agencies.
And 2017 proved to be a big year for lobbying.
Tech giants Facebook Inc. (FB), Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), Oracle Corp. (ORCL), Apple Inc. (AAPL), Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co.(HPE) spent record amounts last year to influence the government, recently published lobbying reports revealed. IBM Corp. (IBM) spent $5.3 million in 2017, the most it has since 2013. Alphabet Inc.'s (GOOG) Google spent more than any of its rivals. Its total expenditure for the year was an eye-popping $18 million, only slightly less than its record of $18.22 million in 2012. Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) was the only top spender to reduce its lobbying budget last year.
It couldn't have come at a more crucial time.
As the current administration takes away or threatens to take away things Big Tech holds dear, like net neutrality, visas and internet privacy, and Congress members draw up bills to force companies to take responsibility for misleading political ads, the industry is rapidly losing the perception game. As Buzzfeed cautioned, Big Tech now has powerful people on both ends of the political spectrum thinking it needs reining in.
While the leaders in the industry were once celebrated as noble and forward-thinking powerhouses, experts now worry tech giants are monopolies unconscionably profiting as they harm everything from the the arts to small businesses, human relationships and democracy. The New Yorker's August 28, 2017 issue included a story titled "Who Owns the Internet? – What Big Tech’s monopoly powers mean for our culture." NPR's popular Planet Money asked, "Google Is Big. Is That Bad?" Celebrated journalist Franklin Foer and scholar John Taplin have new books out asking the same questions. Politico published a profile of writer Barry Lynn whose team was ousted from a think tank funded by Google after it called for more antitrust regulation.
Criticism is also emanating from the industry itself. Salesforce (CRM) CEO Marc Benioff wants Facebook to be regulated like a tobacco company because of its addictive nature. A former employee said the company can't be trusted to regulate itself in a New York Times op-ed. A former Apple executive and two investors want the company to be more proactive about preventing user addiction.
As the biggest spender on lobbying, Google's reach extended to every manner of policy decision. Last year, it lobbied on patent reform, data privacy and government surveillance, Trump's executive orders banning entry of people from certain countries, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), cybersecurity, corporate tax reform, the H-1B temporary worker visa, issues related to human trafficking, the opioid crisis etc. The company even pushed for the government to maintain good relations with Cuba. "Connecting Cuba will require an entire ecosystem of players...It will also require the U.S. maintaining a policy that allows telecommunications firms work in Cuba," said Brett Perlmutter, head of strategy and operations for Google Cuba at a conference in June.
Pervasive in Google's lobbying filings are mentions of competition and antitrust issues. Before the European Commission slapped Google with a record-breaking fine in June of last year, the company's lobbyists were reportedly busy asking U.S. lawmakers to sign a a letter criticizing EU antitrust regulation. Israel's antitrust chief said she would dedicate this year to making sure Google and Facebook are not undermining competition. Even at home, the company has faced increasing calls for it to be regulated because of the impact it has on the flow of information. Former chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly wanted Google to be treated as a public utility. Yelp wrote a letter to the FTC accusing Google of scraping images from its website and violating an agreement signed in 2012. The newspaper industry has also asked Congress for permission to band together and take on Google collectively. (See also: Google Slapped With $2.7 Billion EU Antitrust Fine)
Google has also led the charge in support of the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 387), a bill introduced last January that would require the government to gain a warrant before requesting access to private emails. The bill was passed in the House in February. "The Senate now has a historic opportunity to shepherd this landmark reform toward enactment. While there are disagreements about other aspects of surveillance reform, there is no disagreement that emails and electronic content deserve Fourth Amendment protections," wrote Richard Salgado, Google's Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security. Since 2010, Google has testified before Congress four times in support of this reform.
Reflected in Google's lobbying reports are also the new technologies it is working on. Mentioned are wind and thermal power, autonomous vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles and sensor-based health monitoring.
Like other tech firms, Amazon has also lobbied in relation to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), data security and privacy, surveillance, international trade policy, and high-skilled immigration, besides drone-related policies and marketing of dietary supplements (it sells them under the "Elements" label).
It should come as no surprise "taxes" gets many mentions in Amazon's lobbying reports. POTUS frequently used social media to criticize the company in this area, sometimes causing the monster stock to falter with his tweets.
Last year, Amazon caved and began collecting sales taxes in all states that have them, but this is only on goods sold directly by Amazon. Consumers don't pay taxes when they buy from third-party vendors – which accounts for half of all sales on Amazon – something that has angered brick-and-mortar retailers. Bills that would authorize states to require remote sellers to collect taxes were introduced in the House and Senate in April of 2017. Ironically, Amazon supports these proposals and has been spending lobbying dollars to push for them to be passed. Why is this? It's possible Amazon realizes that collecting state sales taxes will make things significantly harder for its smaller online competitors. So contrary to what Trump is saying, Amazon does support Internet taxes.
The president has also said the United States Postal Service charges the firm too little. Included in Amazon's lobbying reports are "issues related to postal reform and postal rates including the Postal Service Reform Act of 2017 (H.R. 756)."
Why is the United States Post Office, which is losing many billions of dollars a year, while charging Amazon and others so little to deliver their packages, making Amazon richer and the Post Office dumber and poorer? Should be charging MUCH MORE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2017
Amazon has also joined other retailers like Wal-Mart and Target in lobbying against the repeal of the Durbin Amendment which limits how much banks can charge retailers for credit card transactions.
Tech companies have been actively fighting the government on surveillance issues, especially government requests for data. This has been more pronounced since Edward Snowden leaked documents that described the scope of the NSA's activities and suggested firms were co-operating with the government to provide access to user data. "The U.S. government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they're doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst," wrote CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a Facebook post at the time. (See also: Twitter Reveals FBI Requests for Account Data.)
Facebook hasn't backed down since. The company, which was fighting the government on a gag order that bars it from telling users about warrants, mentioned the need to "reform government surveillance programs, including additional substantive and procedural privacy protections and providing more transparency around national security-related orders" in its filings. In September, the government dropped its demand.
Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows for warrantless surveillance by the NSA, expired last year, and companies lobbied for the law to be reformed if reauthorized. In May, Facebook, along with Google, Microsoft and a host of other companies, wrote directly to Congress to increase privacy protections and transparency with reforms. On Jan. 20, Trump announced he had signed a bill renewing the surveillance program with minimal changes.
While Facebook wants desperately to curb government snooping, it is actively fighting at the same time to protect its own access to user information. The company is lobbying against the BROWSER Act, which would require it to allow users to opt-in or opt-out of the use, disclosure or access to sensitive data. What's at stake? Oh, just the company's multi-billion dollar ad business.
Facebook also lobbied the government on "online advertising" and "content and platform transparency" as it faces calls to disclose who buys ads on its website.