The data — culled from the companies’ required filings to the government, including new reports made public late Tuesday — tells the story of a sector that increasingly has tapped its deep pockets to beat back regulatory threats and boost its bottom line. Despite actions by companies that exposed users’ personal information and left democratic elections in digital disarray, Congress has not adopted new laws to limit the industry — a reality some critics attribute in part to Silicon Valley’s evolving lobbying prowess.
“These companies, because they are so large, have tremendous economic power and tremendous political power,” said Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is leading the House in an antitrust investigation of big tech companies. “And they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to protect the status quo.”
Facebook, for example, spent almost $81 million in the nation’s capital between 2010 and 2019, according to new lobbying records as well as data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. That includes nearly $17 million last year, its highest amount ever, as it sought to assuage federal regulators who were furious at what they saw as Facebook’s failures to protect users’ data, crack down on dangerous content and stop the spread of viral misinformation ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The company declined to comment for this report.
Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Uber, which were included in the analysis, also declined to comment.
Amazon said it is “focused on ensuring we are advocating on issues that are important to our customers, our employees and policymakers,” according to spokeswoman Jill Kerr. Amazon spent more than $16 million on lobbying last year, a record for the e-commerce giant.
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
The steep rise in Silicon Valley’s political spending reflects the coming-of-age of an industry that began the decade in Washington’s good graces. Ten years ago, federal regulators fawned over Facebook, Google and their tech peers, seeking a chance to associate themselves with companies considered to be engines of American economic recovery — and executives who could help pad their reelection coffers.
But then came data mishaps at Facebook and Google, and an election in 2016 in which popular social media services were weaponized by the Russian government. The revelations shook Washington, where Congress would come to subject tech companies and their top leaders to the same harsh spotlight that long had been trained on big banks, oil giants and other more entrenched industries.
“People were celebrating these companies as great stories of American success,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “The founders would make noble statements about corporate goals, and everybody bought into that without a lot of scrutiny.”
Now, Warner said, the industry’s recent troubles have “put us in a place now where the potential for fairly dramatic action is there.”
In recent months, members of Congress have started translating their threats against big tech into action. Democrats and Republicans have introduced a flurry of bills that would restrict how tech companies collect data, for example, and penalize them more harshly for privacy abuses. They have forged ahead with efforts to adopt new laws aimed at online political advertising and debated whether to hold Facebook, Google and other digital behemoths liable for dangerous or problematic content their users’ post.
Silicon Valley’s largest players have responded in kind, steadily ratcheting up their lobbying expenses. Tech giants now spend as much or more as big banks, pharmaceutical manufacturers and oil giants, the records show, led by Amazon, Facebook and Google, which regularly draw lawmakers’ ire.
Google, for example, dedicated roughly $150 million to lobbying over the past decade, far more than any of its peers over that period, as it found itself under siege for a wide range of business practices, including its highly criticized approach to children’s data. It spent over $12 million in 2019, less than it had in the past, as the company sought to retool its political operation in the face of heightened Washington scrutiny.
The company’s newest data, filed Tuesday, reflects its political activity between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. Over that period, Google lobbyists focused heavily on “privacy and competition issues in online advertising,” its report shows, reflecting probes underway on Capitol Hill and at the Justice Department looking at one of the most lucrative arms of its business.
Amazon, meanwhile, spent nearly $80 million over the course of 10 years. The e-commerce giant’s political operation, which also includes its cloud computing arm, Amazon Web Services, has grown exponentially as federal lawmakers and regulators have showered the company with similar antitrust scrutiny.
Amazon lobbyists also blanketed the Capitol on issues related to law enforcement and facial-recognition technology. Some lawmakers have sharply criticized Amazon, which offers face-scanning capabilities to police and home-surveillance cameras to customers, over the privacy implications of such tools.
In a Congress racked by partisanship — and distracted by other debates, including impeachment — lawmakers say the tech industry’s heightened spending threatens their efforts to pass much-needed digital protections. Cicilline, for one, predicted an all-out lobbying blitz as he and his fellow lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee forge ahead with an investigation that seeks to determine whether antitrust laws need to be updated for the digital age.
“There’s no question the folks making out in the current system, who have a real advantage … they’re going to work hard to preserve that because they’re making a huge amount of money,” he said.
In doing so, many tech companies have sought to advance their agendas more forcefully.
Once absent from Washington, Apple has lobbied more forcefully than ever in a bid to ensure President Trump’s policies on taxes and tariffs benefit the iPhone giant and its bottom line. The company ended the year having spent more than $7 million to reach Congress and the White House, federal records show. That was less than its tech peers but a record for Apple, whose chief executive, Tim Cook, has forged with a close relationship with Trump.
Ten years ago, Uber did not employ a single federal lobbyist. But the company now spends millions of dollars in Washington each year — $2.3 million in 2019 — as it charts the next chapter for its ride-hailing business. It has lobbied considerably for more-permissive rules allowing self-driving vehicles on U.S. roads, its records show, as well as more-audacious gambits such as “vertical take-off and landing technology” — essentially, flying cars.
Twitter, meanwhile, spent $1.48 million in 2019, less than other tech companies but still its most ever, in a year when its chief executive regularly found himself in Washington. Microsoft, a longtime political player, shelled out more than $10 million in 2019, federal records show.