Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft spent a combined $64 million to shape U.S. regulations and stave off government scrutiny in 2018, according to ethics reports filed late Tuesday, an uptick in lobbying that reflects the industry’s souring political fortunes in Washington — and the policy battles still on the horizon.
The tech sector’s most prolific spender was Google: It shelled out more than $21 million last year to lobby Congress, the White House and key federal agencies on issues including online privacy, an analysis of the disclosure reports shows. That marks a new record for the search giant, and it appears to be the second time in two years that Google has outspent companies across all industries to influence policymakers in the nation’s capital.
For some in Silicon Valley, the lobbying blitz followed a series of scandals starting with Facebook’s mishandling of its users' private data. The incident incensed lawmakers, who began threatening new regulation of the entire tech industry and eventually forced top executives — including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — to testify for the first time on Capitol Hill.
That onslaught of oversight isn’t likely to dissipate in 2019, experts say. Democrats and Republicans in Congress this year have introduced new proposals that would restrict how companies collect and monetize their users' data, for example, and two committees of lawmakers in the House and Senate have pledged to hold hearings soon. The result could be to return Facebook, Google and other Internet behemoths to the congressional spotlight.
“When you come of age as an industry, as we have, and you make so many things possible, you’re also going to be under scrutiny for all of the consequences of that, too,” said Linda Moore, president of TechNet, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents companies including Apple, Facebook and Google.
The industry’s top spenders — Amazon and Microsoft — didn’t respond to requests for comment. Apple and Facebook declined to comment.
To handle the heightened attention in 2018, Facebook spent more than ever to influence lawmakers, totaling $12.6 million in lobbying over the course of 2018, the federal reports show. Twitter also broke its own annual record, spending more than $1 million for the first time, according to the reports. Along with privacy, the two Web giants faced sustained scrutiny on Capitol Hill in 2018 targeting the algorithms that power popular websites and services — and the industry’s efforts to stop the spread of abusive content, including hate speech and misinformation.
Key Democrats, now in control of the House, have pledged to return to those issues in 2019. A year after Zuckerberg and Dorsey were forced to testify about their policies, the question facing many in the industry is if it’s "the start of a new era where they’re up here every year?” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech think tank that counts representatives from Google and Microsoft as board members. “Or is it that it was just a pressure point, that they needed to come up here and answer some serious questions but after that we move on to the regular way of doing business in Washington?”
Veteran lawmakers said the tech industry’s heightened lobbying efforts reflect the mounting frustrations on Capitol Hill. “We’ve come a long way from the days when the high-tech sector said, ‘Just leave us alone, we would like to have as little to do with government as possible, and just let us innovate',” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Amazon spent a record $14 million in lobbying in 2018 in part to address its own privacy woes, its disclosures reflect. Privacy watchdogs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, questioned all year whether Amazon had put in place appropriate safeguards on facial-recognition tools that it sells to law enforcement. The e-commerce giant also grappled with fresh doubts in Congress about the size of its corporate footprint — and whether the company put its rivals at a disadvantage. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
Unlike some of its counterparts in Silicon Valley, Microsoft managed to avoid the Washington spotlight in 2018. It spent more than $9.5 million to lobby last year, according to its lobbying disclosures. Also dodging any political headaches was Apple, which spent more than $6 million in Washington in 2018, a decrease from $7.1 million the prior year.
Instead, Apple labored intensely behind the scenes — in a campaign led by CEO Tim Cook — to ensure that the Trump administration’s trade war with China spared Apple’s products from steep tariffs. The campaign largely succeeded, but Cook still told investors in January that the repercussions of the international trade dispute would negatively affect its sales in the most recent quarter.