Facebook and Amazon are now the two largest individual corporate lobbyists in Washington, with their political spend eclipsing that of telecommunications and arms companies in 2020.
Analysis by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has found that during the 2020 US presidential election cycle, Big Tech – including Apple and Google – spent a total of $124m on lobbying and campaigns.
Despite the collective increase in both lobbying and campaign spend, Public Citizen’s report revealed that most of this growth was driven by Amazon and Facebook, which have increased their spending by 30% and 56% respectively since 2018.
This means Facebook spent roughly $19.7m on lobbying in the 2020 election cycle, while Amazon spent $18.7m. The next biggest spender was telecommunications conglomerate Comcast, which spent $14.4m, or 30% less than Amazon.
Other top lobbying spenders include weapons manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Boeing Co, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Technologies, as well as consumer goods company Unilever.
“When Public Citizen first reported on Big Tech’s lobbying spending in 2019, we warned that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google lobbyists, consultants, lawyers and allied researchers were quickly descending upon Washington. Now Big Tech has pervasively infiltrated Washington, and dominated spending in nearly every category of possible influence,” said the report.
“The foundation of the Big Tech companies’ influence is their lobbying teams, which use campaign contributions, existing relationships and past experience to swing policy in their favour. Public Citizen’s last report described a sixfold increase in Big Tech lobbying spending from 2009 to 2018. Big Tech’s lobbying spending has only increased since then,” it continued.
Public Citizen’s 2019 research revealed that all four of the Big Tech firms had massively increased their lobbying spend in the eight years between the 2010 and 2018 mid-term election cycles, from a collective total of $19.2m to $118m.
While the majority of the $124m spent by the four Big Tech firms in the 2020 election cycle went towards lobbying activity, with just $16.5m being contributed to individual political campaigns, it marks a record total invested by Big Tech firms in both types of spending.
Of the campaign contributions, $3.2m went to members of Congress with jurisdiction over Big Tech. Of the 142 members who sit on the four committees that cover antitrust and privacy legislation, 134 (or 94%) received a financial contribution from Big Tech firms.
“Importantly, the mere fact of a corporate contribution does not automatically compromise a legislator,” said the report. “Some legislators and committees who have received Big Tech…funds have conducted the most thorough investigations and hearings on Big Tech in decades… At the same time, there is no doubt companies direct their campaign funds to gain access and influence.”
However, the report also noted that Big Tech’s increased political spending only represents one piece of the “influence-peddling” puzzle, citing the funding of think tanks and academics who may research, advocate and publish in favour of Big Tech companies without necessarily disclosing their benefactors as a further cause for concern.
“Big Tech corporations are known to have funded trade associations, advocacy organisations and think tanks across the political spectrum, including groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Conservative Union, the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress,” said the report.
“Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google also sponsor individual academics, who often fail to appropriately disclose conflicts of interest as a result of this funding. As one example, Fiona Scott Morton, a Yale University economist who has published multiple influential articles on the antitrust cases against Facebook and Google, was found in 2020 to have received funds from Amazon and Apple, yet failed to disclose them until they were uncovered by reporters.
“More recently, it was reported that The New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks, while receiving funds from Facebook (indirectly through the Aspen Institute), was also writing and publishing positive words about Facebook as a “guest blogger”. Brooks, too, failed to disclose his donors before this was reported by journalists.”
In its conclusion to the report, Public Citizen called for reforms in lobbying disclosures, including making more information available – such as which employees are engaged in the activity and a list of bills the lobbying is focused on – and the closure of loopholes that would reduce the amount of time a person has to spend lobbying before they declare it.
According to a separate report from lobbying monitoring group Transparency International EU, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple spent a combined total of €19m lobbying the European Union (EU), which it attributes to the “increased regulatory scrutiny” the companies have faced in recent years.