A firing this week by a Washington think tank has exposed the deep and often hidden influence of tech companies that are driving key governmental decisions affecting people both on and off the Internet.
On Wednesday, the New America Foundation — a think tank funded by Google as well as one of its cofounders, Eric Schmidt — ousted members of its Open Markets program, its anti-monopoly research arm, that had openly criticized the Web giant's growing power. Google and New America have said this specific decision was not motivated by the group's remarks. But critics say the episode highlights the tech industry's enormous power to set the terms of public debate in the nation’s capital.
The funding of think tanks is just one way Silicon Valley is quietly expanding its influence in Washington.
A Washington Post analysis shows just how broad tech companies' political interests have become. According to corporate disclosures that were submitted to the Senate Office of Public Records and screened by the Center for Responsive Politics, some of these tech giants are regularly setting records in their spending on lobbying and are pushing as many as 100 issues — or more — every year. The proliferation of issues in tech companies’ lobbying portfolio helps illustrate the industry's growing influence on everyday consumer life.
To take one example, Amazon.com Inc.'s earliest lobbying efforts in 2008 focused on just a handful of issues, including electronic payments, the taxation of online sales and consumer product safety — all matters that deal directly with Amazon's core business as an e-commerce company. (Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos also owns the Washington Post.)
But that portfolio soon grew in accordance with Amazon's sprawling business interests: By 2010, as hacking and data theft was on the rise, the Seattle company had begun lobbying on cybersecurity issues; in 2012, its lobbyists began addressing international postal regulations. A year later, it expanded again to consider online wine sales and flying drones. As it moved into streaming music and mobile apps, Amazon added copyright issues and music licensing to its filings, as well as mobile payments processing.
Most analyses of corporate lobbying focus on spending. And it's true that Silicon Valley has devoted ever-increasing amounts of money to lobbying over the last decade. This summer, Google reported that it spent more than ever before on lobbying in a single quarter — joining Uber, Amazon and Apple Inc., which also set new spending records. Google's latest report reflected as much as a 40% increase from the same period last year — a giant jump in spending.
But as many longtime Washington hands can attest, lobbying involves much more than simply throwing money at a problem, which is why analyzing the range of issues a company lobbies on can be just as informative. It provides an indication of a company's policy priorities, and evidence of how a company's strategy is evolving over time.
The rapid proliferation of issues in Uber's lobbying portfolio closely tracks its rise as a transportation and technology behemoth. Its earliest reports, from 2013, disclose the San Francisco company's outreach on "innovation in the transportation marketplace." But as Uber faced mounting questions about how it classified its drivers as contractors, not employees, it started to tell government officials more about its self-described role as a job creator and contributor to highway safety. By 2016 it was lobbying on the defense budget and issues related to its drivers' access to military bases; this year, it added self-driving cars to the list.
Google — whose parent company is Mountain View, Calif.-based Alphabet Inc. — may have begun as a narrowly focused search engine whose earliest priorities in Washington were limited to issues such as spyware and online pharmacies. But by 2009, as it ramped up its investments in YouTube and moonshot projects, Google was meeting with officials on patents and copyright, as well as geothermal and other renewable energies.
Google made no mention of surveillance in its lobbying disclosures leading up to summer 2013, when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden uncovered details of the NSA's massive spying apparatus. But by that October, Google began routinely lobbying on issues "related to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and national security orders," the secret, controversial government demands for user data.
Facebook Inc. began as a social network for college students, and its earliest lobbying disclosures in 2009 list only a handful of issues, including information security, privacy and the international regulation of software. But as the Menlo Park, Calif., company expanded into a global media platform, so did its priorities on Capitol Hill. By 2012, Facebook was lobbying elected officials and federal agencies on freedom of expression and children's privacy. And the company's expanding business interests were present too, on issues such as online advertising and high-tech worker visas.
Facebook started lobbying on issues tied to terrorism in spring 2015, tracking the rising profile of the Islamic State group. Throughout the year, the social network met with federal officials as lawmakers urged social media companies to play a larger role reporting extremist content on their networks. Since the first terrorism-related lobbying disclosure, Facebook and other tech platforms have become more assertive in policing speech not just from violent, extremist groups abroad, but also from hate groups with followings in the United States.
These lobbying shifts paint the portrait of an industry that has evolved from its early days of providing new and relatively self-contained services into enormous, market-dominating behemoths that touch almost every aspect of our modern existence.
Amazon, Apple and Uber declined to comment. Facebook and Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Fung and Shaban write for the Washington Post.