The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tech companies spent almost $70 million lobbying Washington in 2021 as Congress sought to rein in their power

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, and Amazon set spending records

From left, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. (AP photos)
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Seven large tech companies spent nearly $70 million lobbying the U.S. government in 2021 as policymakers from both parties weighed legislation to curtail their power and influence.

The notable sum exceeds the roughly $65 million they spent in 2020, highlighting the companies’ mounting work to fight the efforts in the Biden administration and Congress to regulate the industry. And it’s roughly three times the amount they spent lobbying Congress a decade ago, underscoring how Silicon Valley has evolved into one of the most influential political forces in Washington.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, spent just over $20 million, and Amazon spent about $19 million, marking the most either company has ever spent lobbying Washington. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Google spent about $9.6 million, a roughly 27 percent increase over last year but still far below the nearly $22 million spent in 2018.

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The figures are based on a Washington Post analysis of the federal lobbying disclosures of those companies, as well as Microsoft, Apple, Uber and Twitter. The companies filed their last updates for the year, reflecting the period between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, before midnight Thursday. The companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Despite years of political backlash, 2021 was a uniquely treacherous year for the tech giants in Washington. They began the year under fire from both parties in the fallout from the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Democrats were furious that the social media companies did not do more to prevent the spread of inciting rhetoric on their platforms ahead of the violence. When they took more enforcement actions in the fallout of the attacks and suspended the accounts of President Donald Trump, Republicans were angered and accused the companies of censorship.

Lawmakers also introduced new bipartisan bills that would result in dramatic changes to the companies’ business models, after years of mounting antitrust scrutiny of their businesses. And President Biden tapped some of the industry’s biggest critics for key roles in his administration, naming Lina Khan to chair the Federal Trade Commission.

The year concluded with increasing political scrutiny of the harms of social media after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed a trove of internal company documents that detailed the myriad ways the company placed profits over the safety of its users.

Lawmakers eager to crack down on the tech giants have become more critical of the industry’s massive lobbying spending, saying it has been an impediment to passing legislation. Despite increasing political backlash against the companies, Congress has not passed comprehensive privacy, content moderation or competition legislation since the advent of the Internet.

During a hearing with Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, last year, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said Congress had done “zilch” on privacy or to make tech platforms more transparent.

“Why? Because there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry,” she said. “Because Facebook and the other tech companies are throwing a bunch of money around this town, and people are listening to them.”

Meta’s lobbying spending peaked in the fourth quarter of 2021 as senators conducted a broad investigation and held hearings in the fallout of the Facebook Papers, the trove of documents disclosed to federal regulators by Haugen. Lawmakers from both parties began weighing proposals to protect children online and promote transparency of their algorithms after the investigation.

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Meta, Amazon, Google and Apple have also aggressively lobbied throughout 2021 to beat back bipartisan bills aimed at promoting competition in the industry. Their blitz has only escalated in the early weeks of 2022, with lawmakers voting Thursday to advance a bill that would prevent the companies from boosting their products and services over rivals’. But it was apparent that their arguments resonated with at least some lawmakers, who flagged during debate that the companies were warning that the bill could negatively affect privacy. The bill was amended to ensure that it would not prohibit privacy-enhancing practices.

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