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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

The tech giants are doling out political donations to antitrust skeptics in Congress

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: Apple faces a major threat on Capitol Hill today, and the Biden administration considers a rule to require apps like TikTok to perform audits.

The tech giants are doling out political donations to antitrust skeptics in Congress

Facebook, Amazon and Google donated tens of thousands of dollars in the second half of 2021 to Democrats who have voiced strong reservations about major antitrust legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill. 

In that time, these companies have largely declined to contribute to the lawmakers leading the bipartisan charge to revamp U.S. antitrust laws, including Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), some of whom have sworn off such donations.

The political givings arrive at a crucial time: proponents of the effort are pushing to grow their coalition before the midterm elections bog down legislative action in Washington. One of their biggest obstacles is skeptical moderate Democrats.

That includes several prominent California Democrats in both the House and Senate who have expressed concern that the bills are too narrowly focused on a few massive U.S. tech companies, including ones that hail from their home state, like Facebook and Google. 

The donations arrive as the tech giants and their industry groups have unleashed a massive lobbying blitz in Washington to oppose the bills, including releasing a bevy of digital ads and having top executives like Apple CEO Tim Cook call lawmakers to voice their concerns.

The flurry of antitrust proposals under consideration include a bill to block the tech giants from favoring their goods over their competitors’ products, one to make it harder for them to scoop up threatening rivals and another to make it easier for regulators to sue to break them up.  

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has emerged as one of their biggest detractors, voting against all those proposals at a House markup in June and arguing at the time that some of the bills would “blow up the tech economy.”

“They're really breakup bills, not regulation,” she told me last year

In the months since, Lofgren and other California Democrats who spoke out against the bills received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from Amazon, Facebook and Google’s political action committees. 

Amazon, one of the main targets of congressional antitrust efforts, donated $5,000 to Lofgren and $1,000 apiece to Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Lou Correa (D-Calif.), according to disclosure filings reviewed by The Technology 202. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Google and Facebook parent company Meta followed a similar trend. 

Meta’s PAC donated $2,500 to Lofgren, Lieu and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), and $2,000 to Correa in the second half of 2021. Meta Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, one of the company’s most prominent leaders, also individually doled out $2,900 for Lofgren. Google’s PAC gave $5,000 to Lofgren and $1,000 to Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.). 

All of the lawmakers either voted against or voiced strong objections to the House’s tech antitrust bills during and after last year’s markup. 

In a statement after the session, Bass said that while she voted for a number of the proposals to advance out of committee, she still had concerns about them and did so “with the understanding that the sponsors will respond to concerns raised before and during the committee vote.”

Apple, another company targeted by lawmakers’ antitrust proposals, does not have a PAC. 

The three other giants also donated to moderate Democrats not from California who have criticized some of the proposals, including the bill to ban “self-preferencing” by the companies that advanced out of a Senate panel last month

That includes Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who along with California Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Alex Padilla (D) all voted to pass the bill out of committee, but not without first casting doubt on whether they would support it on the Senate floor.

“If the conduct this bill seeks to prevent is unfair and improper, I believe that conduct should be prevented from anyone who engages in it, not only a small handful of companies,” Feinstein said at the bill’s markup, led by Klobuchar and Cicilline. 

Amazon donated $5,000 to Coons and $1,500 Leahy, and Meta donated $2,500 to Coons. 

Another recipient of the tech giants’ political donations was the centrist New Democrat Coalition and its leader, Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), who last year called on House leadership to pump the brakes on the antitrust legislation.

DelBene received $2,000 from Meta and the New Democrat Coalition got $5,000 from both Google and Amazon. Amazon has also given nearly $95,000 to members of the coalition, Politico reported Monday.

But the companies have also donated to a few lawmakers leading antitrust efforts.

Amazon and Google both donated to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who with Klobuchar is leading the bill aimed at blocking tech giants from prioritizing their goods, to the tune of $4,000 and $1,500, respectively. Amazon also donated $3,000 to Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who is leading a bipartisan bill to crack down on Google’s and Apple’s grips on their app stores. 

Microsoft, another tech giant that could be targeted by some of the bills but has also allied with Cicilline and Klobuchar on other antitrust efforts, donated more evenly between proponents and critics of the bills. 

Microsoft’s PAC gave $2,500 apiece to Lofgren and Padilla, and $1,000 to Swalwell. But it also donated to Grassley, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). Grassley and Blumenthal got $5,000, while Nadler got $4,000. 

Nadler chairs the committee that advanced the slate of tech antitrust bills in June, and Blumenthal is a co-sponsor on the “self-preferencing bill” and one of the lead co-sponsors with Blackburn on the app store bill. 

Meanwhile, Reid Hoffman, who co-founded LinkedIn and is a board member for Microsoft, donated $2,900 to Lofgren, and Microsoft president Brad Smith donated $2,900 to DelBene. 

Correction: A previous version of this article mislabeled Rep. Suzan DelBene as a representative from California. She represents Washington state. 

Our top tabs

Regulatory threats to Apple are piling up

The debate over Apple’s power as operator of the App Store will come to a head today, with the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled to consider legislation that would force Apple and Google to let people download apps from outside their store and allow them to install alternative app stores. The bill would also prohibit the companies from requiring developers to use their in-app payment systems, Cat Zakrzewski reports.

“Apple is marshaling the goodwill it built in Washington on privacy and security to bat back the competition push,” Cat writes. “The company sent a seven-page letter on Wednesday to the top lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee, arguing the app store bill would harm consumers’ privacy and security. The company bashed the data collection practices of ‘large social media platforms’ in the letter, which was viewed by The Washington Post.”

The Biden administration is considering rules to limit TikTok, foreign-owned apps

The rules would expand U.S. government oversight of apps that can be exploited “by foreign adversaries to steal or otherwise obtain data.” They could let the Commerce Department require apps to submit to audits, opening the door to independent scrutiny of their source code and the types of data that they collect, Cat Zakrzewski and Drew Harwell report.

The Commerce Department doesn’t have a timeline for when the rules will be finalized. The Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States continues to review TikTok, National Security Council spokeswoman Saloni Sharma said. TikTok owner ByteDance has spoken with the committee as recently as December, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly.

Rant and rave

Facebook released its fourth-quarter earnings report, with the company's growth stagnating. WIRED's Eric Ravenscraft:

CNET's Queenie Wong on how remarkable the company's stock slump was:

CNN's Rachel Metz and Retool's Michael Selvidge:

Inside the industry

Top German court instructs Facebook to divulge data on users who insulted MP (Financial Times)

Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem highlights its rocky transition from music streamer to media producer (Elizabeth Dwoskin, Gerrit De Vynck, Reed Albergotti and Nitasha Tiku)

EU drafts counteroffensive to China, US on technology rules (Politico Europe)

Facebook loses users globally for the first time in its history (Elizabeth Dwoskin and Will Oremus)

Zuckerberg's Metaverse gets quiet rollout in Facebook-wary D.C. (Bloomberg)

Workforce report

Amazon workers at a second warehouse in NYC say they have filed a petition to unionize (The Verge)

Lyft emerges as fundraising heavyweight in Massachusetts ahead of vote on gig work ballot initiative (OpenSecrets)

Two members of Google’s Ethical AI group leave to join Timnit Gebru’s nonprofit (The Verge)

Trending

Gee, I wonder how Apple Podcasts suddenly became a five-star app (The Verge)

Mentions

  • Former congresswoman Barbara Comstock, a Republican who represented Virginia, has registered to lobby for NetChoice.
  • TechNet named Ashley Sutton as its executive director for Washington state and the northwest. Sutton previously owned and ran Agile Public Affairs.
  • The Semiconductor Industry Association has brought on Eric Breckenfeld and Robert Casanova. Breckenfeld, the group’s director of technology policy, previously worked at Booz Allen Hamilton. Casanova, SIA’s director of industry statistics and economic policy, previously worked for the U.S. International Trade Commission and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
  • Accenture, Qualcomm and Unity have joined the XR Association as board members. Avatar Dimension, Cognixion, Foundry 45, Friends with Holograms, GameDriver, OVR Technology and the WXR Venture Fund have joined as members.

Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee considers legislation to rein in the dominance of Apple and Google’s app stores today at 9 a.m.
  • The House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee holds a hearing on 5G technology and aviation security today at 11 a.m.
  • Tim Wu, a special assistant to President Biden, discusses antitrust and its effects on workers at a New America event on Tuesday at 3 p.m. 
  • The Senate Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on digital assets on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

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