Tech giants in the past decade have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into lobbying, advertising, polling and research to advance their political interests in Washington. Now some of their top adversaries are forming a plan to use that same playbook to press Congress to pass bills that would place new limits on how they wield power over their rivals.
Launching Tuesday, the Tech Oversight Project plans to bring “campaign-style” tactics to push lawmakers to pass competition legislation aimed at the tech industry. The project is primarily funded by the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic venture launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar that has called for greater regulation of the tech industry, and the advocacy arm of the Economic Security Project, a nonprofit organization led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who has called for the breakup of the social network he helped create.
The project sees itself as a direct response to Big Tech-funded groups such as NetChoice and the Connected Commerce Council, which have been flooding social media feeds and email newsletters with ads defending the industry against regulation.
“Our aim is to be a direct counterweight to those organizations that have been lobbying for the status quo for years,” said Sacha Haworth, the executive director of the Tech Oversight Project.
Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon over the past decade have significantly increased their lobbying forces in Washington as they fight a rising tide of scrutiny over privacy, competition and content moderation. Amazon spent approximately $18 million on lobbying in 2020, while Facebook spent a record-breaking $20 million.
The companies, which until recent years kept Washington at arm’s length, have also sought to extend their influence through funding industry trade groups, think tanks and events to advance their interests. Groups such as NetChoice and the Connected Commerce Council have fought against the passage of antitrust legislation that targets the ways companies boost their own products and services.
Connected Commerce Council, which counts Google and Amazon as “partners” on its website, has criticized antitrust legislation as bad for small businesses.
"The Tech Oversight Project seems concerned with the needs of billionaire companies that are attacking trillionaire companies, and not America’s small businesses,” Rob Retzlaff, 3C’s executive director, said in a statement on the operation’s launch.
Lawmakers have said the rapid rise of this lobbying apparatus has been a major hurdle to passing legislation to regulate the industry, despite a growing bipartisan consensus that it has operated for far too long without guardrails.
Advocates, whistleblowers and civil rights groups for years have tried to take on the Silicon Valley machine, by revealing privacy scandals at the companies or the ways that they’ve allegedly abused their market clout to harm their rivals. But these groups generally are not as well-funded as the political arms of some of the world’s most valuable companies, and they have not had the resources to spend significantly on mass advertising. To date, no comprehensive legislation to regulate the tech giants has passed Congress.
The launch highlights how Big Tech’s critics are becoming a more professionalized and coordinated force in Washington. Now organizations with ties to Omidyar and Hughes, who made their fortunes in the tech industry, are making the funding available for industry critics to adopt some of the more expensive tactics long deployed in defense of companies.
Haworth, a veteran of Democratic politics, said she wants to bring the “aggressiveness” and single-minded focus of a campaign to the fight to regulate Big Tech. The project’s first target will be pressuring senators to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, a bipartisan bill that would prevent Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google from favoring their own products over those of their rivals. The bill could be considered before a Senate committee as early as this week. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“Pouncing upon this moment right now is critical,” Haworth said, noting that Congress may only have a small window to pass competition legislation, as it is uncertain that Democrats will be able to retain control of the House and Senate following this year’s midterm elections.
The group’s initial focus only on competition policy sets it apart from many of the other organizations working on tech policy in Washington.
Many lawmakers and advocates concerned about the tech industry’s growing power have also suggested that it may be time to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a decades-old legal shield that protects tech companies from lawsuits over the content people post on their services. But Haworth said the Tech Oversight Project views that debate as “a distraction” and a “red herring.” Democrats have said the companies are too hands-off when it comes to harmful posts. Republicans, meanwhile, have accused the companies of censorship for removing rule-breaking content, which the companies have denied.
“Ultimately, we’re never going to get bipartisan agreement on it,” she said. “Republicans want less oversight over content, and Democrats want more oversight over the content. … We’re at an impasse.”