Five of the largest U.S. tech companies poured a combined $64.2 million into federal lobbying last year, according to new ethics reports. That's a more than 10% increase over their record-setting 2017 spending.
Google alone made up about one-third of that total, spending more than $21.2 million in 2018. That's up almost 17% from the previous year, when it spent more on federal lobbying than any other company.
Amazon spent $14.2 million, Facebook $12.6 million, Microsoft $9.5 million and Apple $6.6 million. Their disclosures, released ahead of a midnight deadline, showed the Big Five invested to sway the Washington debate on a wide range of policy issues, including privacy, election security and antitrust.
This drastic increase in lobbying cash could prove a formidable hurdle to advocates and privacy hawks in Congress trying to pass a tough federal privacy bill. Lawmakers are insisting that 2019 will be the year they finally pass a national framework — and privacy advocates are increasingly concerned that tech companies' well-funded lobbying machine could outweigh consumers' voices.
"The big concern is that the lobbying influence will result in a debate focusing on the wrong questions," said ACLU senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani. "The central question should be, 'What is good for consumers?'"
The eye-popping sum comes as tech companies find themselves clashing with Washington more than ever.
Lawmakers and regulators have been sounding the alarm about companies' lax data practices and the misuse of consumer information by third parties since the public learned of Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political consulting firm that did work for the Trump campaign used people's data without proper permission. They're also scrutinizing whether the companies have done enough to crack down on disinformation campaigns after Russia used social media platforms to spread fake news and information during the 2016 campaign.
Technology companies are now coming to the table for the first time to create federal privacy legislation to head off a stringent new state law in California, which has been signed by the governor and will take effect in 2020. The law will give consumers the right to know what information companies collect about them, what they're doing with it and who they share it with.
This new California law could pose a serious challenge to many of the companies' data collection practices and create serious impediments for businesses that rely on targeted advertising. And several other states are considering their own actions on privacy this year.
A federal privacy law that preempts state level legislation would be “a bad deal” for consumers, Singh Guliani said. “We need baseline standards, but states need to have the flexibility to respond to new privacy threats,” she said.
In addition to lobbying, privacy advocates are already on alert for signs that the technology industry is dominating the debate. In the fall, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a major privacy hearing, intended to kick off discussion about privacy at the national level in the wake of California passing its own privacy law.
The hearing featured executives from several major technology companies, but it did not include consumer privacy advocates. The move sparked criticism, and the committee later held a hearing that featured such advocates. “We wouldn't want that perspective to dominate the debate," Singh Guliani said.
It’s not just the companies’ spending on lobbying that could sway the privacy debate in Washington. Their increased influence is also a reflection of the former high-profile policymakers and regulators who many technology companies have hired in recent years.
Jeff Chester, executive director for Center for Digital Democracy, said there's been a “revolving door” between both Republican and Democratic administrations and the technology industry lobby. “There is ultimately a huge conflict of interest,” he said.
Chester is not optimistic that Congress will be able pass legislation with serious teeth, and he's instead focused his efforts on grass-roots privacy campaigns. “It’s very likely the federal bill is going to be a weak one and not really do anything,” he said.
Though the privacy debate has heated up in Washington since California passed its law, the Center for Democracy in Technology's Director of the Data Privacy Project Michelle Richardson said it's still in the early innings.
Senate Democrats have floated some national privacy legislation, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a privacy bill last year. But she’s expecting bipartisan privacy bills to be introduced in the spring as technology industry trade groups have been pushing frameworks for what a federal privacy law should include.
The Internet Assn. said in a statement that it supports a privacy bill that would provide Americans “meaningful control over the data they provide to companies across all industries, including the ability to access, correct, delete and download data.”
Richardson said at this early stage, it’s hard to judge whether the industry groups will support legislation that has many of the tough enforcement provisions that privacy advocates are seeking.
“It's hard to judge them in detail,” she said. “We'll have to see how all of these are going to transform into actual legislative language.”