WASHINGTON — Big technology companies are bracing for a new administration and new scrutiny of their businesses with a time-tested strategy: opening their pocketbooks.
Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. topped all other U.S. companies in federal lobbying expenditures last year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the most recent disclosures. It was the second straight year they outspent all other companies, including stalwarts such as AT&T Inc. and Boeing Co.
Facebook, facing federal and state antitrust lawsuits as well as a series of hearings summoning CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Washington, spent nearly $20 million in 2020, up nearly 18% from the previous year.
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Amazon, which saw CEO Jeff Bezos testify before Congress for the first time and continued pressing to expand its business as a government contractor, spent about $18 million last year, up about 11% from 2019 spending.
“We’ve been clear that the internet needs updated regulations, which is why we’ll continue voicing our support for new rules that address today’s realities online,” a Facebook spokesman said.
“Amazon provides a wide range of products and services for our customers, and we’re always looking for ways to innovate on their behalf. Our Washington, D.C., team is focused on ensuring we are advocating on issues that are important to policymakers, our employees and our customers,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.
The Journal analyzed reports filed by U.S. companies with Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The reports cover the full year.
Apple Inc. disclosed $6.7 million in lobbying spending for 2020, down from a record $7.4 million in 2019.
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Alphabet Inc.’s Google also reported a drop in lobbying budget for the second year running, spending $7.5 million.
Apple and Google declined to comment on the lobbying spending.
Such expenditures, which are required to be disclosed under federal law, represent only part of an array of efforts the four tech giants are using to counter their critics and build goodwill in Washington at a time when they are under a brighter spotlight than ever.
Google and Facebook face multiple antitrust lawsuits, and Amazon and Apple have been the subject of preliminary inquiries that could advance further under the Biden administration.
While President Biden hasn’t spelled out a tech agenda or made key personnel choices overseeing the sector, Democrats in Congress are pushing him to be more aggressive in tackling Big Tech’s market power. They are planning their own legislation and oversight on issues such as antitrust, privacy, liability for user-generated content, and misinformation.
Social media’s role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot gave new urgency to those plans—and led Facebook, Amazon and others to suspend political donations, curtailing a source of influence.
A key part of the companies’ playbook is funding groups that agree with the companies’ agenda.
In a separate disclosure of its political activity, Google said in December that it is a member or a substantial contributor to nearly 200 trade associations and political advocacy groups, including several that work on antitrust issues. Some of the groups have criticized Google.
When a Colorado-led coalition of attorneys general filed an antitrust suit against Google in mid-December over its dominance in online search, the president of the Connected Commerce Council—one of the Google-funded groups—issued a statement blasting the action. It was emailed to reporters before details of the suit were public.
The council’s members are small businesses who benefit from tech companies’ products, said its president, Jake Ward. He said he has used funds from Facebook, Google and Amazon to fund research and staffing, but the companies don’t have a say on the positions the group takes.
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Facebook in 2020 backed a new advocacy group, the American Edge Project, to warn against the dangers of curbing tech innovation.
In December, two of the group’s paid advisers, former Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) and Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), wrote a Washington Times commentary citing a poll conducted on the group’s behalf that showed voters have high levels of appreciation for American tech products and companies.
A representative of American Edge said its more than two dozen members have diverse backgrounds. They include advocacy groups for other industries, such as medical device manufacturers.
Apple has taken a proactive stance as it felt the heat of the antitrust spotlight. Ahead of a July hearing with CEO Tim Cook and other chief executives last year, the company offered to brief congressional staff on a study showing the economic benefits of its App Store. An Apple spokesman said the study was developed as a curtain-raiser for the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference.
The companies have also hired Washington experience, according to LinkedIn profiles of their employees. Under scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, Facebook last year hired Barbara Blank, a 12-year FTC veteran and former senior official in the agency’s bureau of competition, which manages antitrust suits.
It also brought on two former staffers from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees antitrust and other tech-related issues.
Amazon, the subject of a preliminary FTC inquiry, last year recruited an antitrust lawyer from the Justice Department and hired four former FTC officials, including three antitrust lawyers and an economist.
Apple hired a Justice Department lawyer and a former FTC antitrust official who also advised FTC Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter, now the agency’s acting chairwoman.
Some of the companies also buy Washington-focused ads. Facebook bought digital ads in Washington publications in 2020, touting support of “updated internet regulations.”
This month, Big Tech offered the Biden administration help combating the coronavirus pandemic and highlighted long-shared policy priorities.
A senior Amazon executive publicly wrote Mr. Biden a letter on Inauguration Day, offering IT and logistical help in rolling out a coronavirus vaccine.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted praise of Mr. Biden’s first-day executive actions on the pandemic, climate change and immigration. Apple’s Mr. Cook praised Mr. Biden’s immigration policy as well.
And before the inauguration, Facebook representatives discussed with the Biden transition the companies’ efforts to combat misinformation on the coronavirus, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg hosted federal infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci for a conversation broadcast online.
Among other tech companies, Microsoft Corp. spent $9.4 million on lobbying in 2020, Oracle Corp. spent about $8.1 million, TikTok owner ByteDance Inc. spent $2.6 million and Twitter Inc. spent $1.5 million.