Google parent Alphabet for the first time spent more than any other company in 2017 to influence Washington, highlighting both the sprawling reach of the country's thriving tech industry and the rising concern by regulators and lawmakers of its ascendance.
All told, the search giant broke its own record by allocating more than $18 million (roughly Rs. 114 crores) to lobby Congress, federal agencies and the White House on issues such as immigration, tax reform, and antitrust. It also spent money to weigh in on an effort by lawmakers and regulators to regulate online advertising, which is at the core of Google's business, according to disclosures filed to the Senate Office of Public Records.
The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics said Tuesday no technology firm had ever claimed the top spot since it began tracking lobbying expenditures by individual companies in 1998.
Google was not the only tech giant to ramp up spending in the nation's capital. Facebook, Amazon and Apple all broke their own company records by pouring money into lobbying operations. Facebook increased spending by 32 percent in 2017 over the previous year, while Apple increased its expenditures by 51 percent. Combined, the four companies devoted about $50 million (roughly Rs. 318 crores) toward lobbying efforts during President Donald Trump's first year in office.
Last year was pivotal for Silicon Valley and the broader world of tech. Industry executives publicly clashed with the president on hot-button issues, such as immigration and climate change. Social media companies were hammered by lawmakers for allowing Russian operatives to spread divisive content on their platforms before and after the 2016 presidential election. And the potential for tech companies to abuse their market power is drawing scrutiny from regulators.
Despite soaring profits and stock prices, the industry also faced public backlash, as issues such as sexual harassment, the spread of hate speech, and political bias by tech companies gained greater currency in the national debate.
Corporate lobbying typically has been dominated by telecom, energy or defence firms. Last year, the other top spenders were AT&T, Boeing, and Comcast. But tech companies have been quickly rising within the ranks of big Washington spenders for years.
Google, long the industry leader on federal lobbying, boosted its spending by nearly 17 percent over 2016. The company's Washington operation paid close attention to proposed legislation, introduced in October, that would require Web companies to create a public database of political ads that run on their platforms, including details of the purchaser's contract, the intended audience, price, and the number of views the ads generate. The lawmakers behind the bill say the rules will help prevent Russia and other foreign powers from exploiting popular online platforms. Both Facebook and Google have told federal election officials they are open to greater oversight over the lucrative business of online political advertising.
Google did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Facebook spent more than $11 million (roughly Rs. 70 crores) on federal lobbying in 2017. In recent weeks, the social media giant has been wrestling with the implications of its global influence, even admitting in a blog post this week that social media can sometimes harm democracy.
In addition to lobbying the federal government on online advertising, Facebook also focused on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, net neutrality and international tax policy. Facebook declined to comment.
Amazon, which is considering three different locations in the Washington region to build its second headquarters, spent nearly $13 million (roughly Rs. 82 crores) in lobbying last year, a 16 percent increase from 2016. Amazon lobbied on issues such as corporate tax reform, immigration, and the Whole Foods acquisition. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
The company's $13.7 billion (roughly Rs. 87,000 crores) purchase of Whole Foods sparked criticism from some lawmakers and industry analysts who say that current antitrust law is ill-equipped to address a tech-dominated corporate landscape, where troves of consumer data and operations that span several industries offer Web giants unfair advantages.
Brian Huseman, Amazon's vice president of public policy, said in a statement, "As one of the biggest job creators in the country, we've expanded our team in Washington, the District of Columbia to ensure we are able to cover the growing range of topics that are important to policymakers, our employees and our customers."
Apple spent just over $7 million (roughly Rs. 44 crores), an increase of 51 percent from 2016. The company lobbied on issues including climate change, mobile medical apps and autonomous vehicles. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
The tech industry's ballooning lobbying budgets may also be an indication that the companies will fight hard to protect the data they are collecting on Americans, said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University. Bedoya worries that the government will now struggle to pass new and meaningful consumer protection laws.
"Because this is the first time in American history that the giants of industry have as their raw material personal data, [tech companies] are going to do as much as possible to protect access to that raw material," Bedoya said.
Others said the increase in lobbying simply coincides with the tech sector's rapid growth and larger role in society.
"These are companies that are touching so many parts of the economy, they are touching so many parts of our geography. So it's inevitable that they are going to engage in a host of political and policy issues," said Julie Samuels, the executive director of Tech: NYC, a group that represents New York-based tech firms. Samuels added that Silicon Valley has also had to adjust to a new political order, under a Republican administration. "Many tech companies had only been real players during the Obama administration. They had a lot to learn."
© The Washington Post 2018