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Amazon, Facebook and Apple spent record-high amounts on lobbying the federal government in 2019, according to companies’ required filings to the government late last night.
Their spending highlights the tech giants’ efforts to exert their influence in Washington amid heightened antitrust and privacy scrutiny of the industry last year.
- Amazon and its enterprise cloud business led the industry in lobbying spending, spending a total of $16.83 million, up about 17 percent from 2018. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
- Social networking titan Facebook was close behind, spending $16.71 million, up 32 percent from the previous year.
- Smartphone maker Apple spent $7.35 million, a 10 percent year over year increase.
These increases are part of a broader decade-long trend, during which seven major technology companies spent nearly half a billion in lobbying, according to analysis by my colleague Tony Romm. Amazon, Google and Facebook made up the majority of that spending.
Companies that once resisted the role of engaging with Washington are now among some of the top spenders in the Capitol, Tony notes. He compiled data on companies’ spending in previous years from the The Center for Responsive Politics.
The eye-popping sums come as companies fight regulatory battles on multiple fronts. They’re grappling with fallout from 2016 election interference on their platforms, many high-profile privacy mishaps and investigations into their size and power.
And they’re now leveraging their deep pockets to ensure lawmakers don’t respond with stringent regulations that could hamper the status quo. This tactic has already been successful, per Tony. “There’s no question the folks making out in the current system, who have a real advantage … they’re going to work hard to preserve that because they’re making a huge amount of money,” Rep. David N. Cicilline, who chairs the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, told Tony. The Rhode Island Democrat is anticipating an all-out lobbying push as he helms an investigation in the tech industry’s power.
As tech companies’ businesses extends into smart home tech, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence, the lobbying expenditures shed some light on just how vast their political challenges are.
Facebook, in the fourth quarter of 2019 for instance, was lobbying on encryption, terrorism, competition, blockchain policy and high-skilled immigration, among other issues. Amazon in the same quarter addressed issues including facial recognition technology, Internet of Things security and postal rate reform.
Amazon is “focused on ensuring we are advocating on issues that are important to our customers, our employees and policymakers,” spokeswoman Jill Kerr told Tony. Other companies in his analysis, including Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Uber, declined his requests for comment.
Some tech observers noted that the lobbying disclosures are not comprehensive of all the ways the tech industry may be trying to sway the political debate. From Luther Lowe, the senior vice president of public policy at Yelp, a company that has challenged Google on antitrust grounds:
Remember, this doesn’t count:
– millions spent on hundreds of think tanks, front groups, 3rd party orgs
– political contributions
– local and state lobbying
– lobbying foreign gov’t (EU is massive)
– hundreds of millions in slush to media organizations in the form of grants https://t.co/PN8M5iJLqQ
— Luther Lowe (@lutherlowe) January 21, 2020
To be sure, not all the tech giants hit historic lobbying levels last year. Google — the top tech lobbying spender in the last decade — was an outlier, cutting back amid a broader reset of its Washington operations. The company and subsidiaries including the self-driving car unit Waymo spent $12.76 million, about a 41 percent decline from the previous year.
And Microsoft — which has largely evaded the regulatory glare on issues including antitrust — spent $10.23 million, a slight rise over last year but still less than the Washington state titan spent in 2013.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, may have personally helped to hack the phone of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2018, a United Nations report to be released Wednesday will find, my colleagues Marc Fisher and Steven Zeitchik report. The revelation could put pressure on the White House, which has maintained friendly ties with the Saudi royal family despite concerns about its human rights record.
The report details a forensic investigation that found Bezos’s cellphone was hacked in 2018 after he got a WhatsApp message containing a malicious file that came from an account purportedly belonging to MBS, as the crown prince is known. The Guardian’s Stephanie Kirchgaessner was first to report the findings, which appear to confirm suspicions raised by Bezos’s private investigators that Saudis were involved in leaking intimate texts messages between Bezos and his girlfriend to American Media Inc., which owns the National Enquirer tabloid, in early 2019.
The hack occurred just five months before the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist who was highly critical of the royal court.
“Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, has alleged through his security consultant, Gavin de Becker, that the Saudi government had ‘access to Bezos’s phone, and gained private information,’ my colleagues reported. De Becker wrote in the Daily Beast that the Saudis were “intent on harming Jeff Bezos since . . . the Post began its relentless coverage” of Khashoggi’s murder.
Bezos’s spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment.
NIBBLES: A rule banning electronics from the Senate impeachment trial could test the willpower of tech-obsessed members of Congress. But a few have already found a workaround for their digital needs: the smartwatch.
At least seven senators wore Apple Watches during the first day of President Trump’s impeachment trial, bending rules banning cellular phones and electronics from the floor, Roll Call’s Katherine Tully-McManus reported. Offenders included six Republicans and one Democrat.
The Supreme Court, which sets a federal standard, does not allow Apple Watches, Katherine reports. Newer versions of the Apple Watch can function like a cellular device to access text, voice and Internet features. But Katherine was unable to confirm if any of the senators used their devices to communicate with the outside. Doing so would be a serious offense under Senate rules — possibly with the penalty of jail time. Electronics aren’t the only concern. Senators are also barred from note passing, talking, coffee, snacks and crossword puzzles during the grueling days, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The account of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), which The Verge confirmed was manned by a staffer at the time, tweeted out a meme mocking the electronics rule:
Democrats are also worried about the stringency of the rules, which prevent journalists from using electronics as well. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) wrote a letter urging the Senate to allow live press coverage from the trial. Until then, not even reporters are allowed Apple Watches.
The Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly:
Reporters, meanwhile, are being screened for smart watches. https://t.co/6E9IfGIsoU
— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) January 21, 2020
BYTES: Trump spent the first day of the impeachment trial at the World Economic Forum, where he took a dig at Europe’s approach to regulating the tech industry. “We continue to embrace technology, not shun it,” Trump told the audience in Davos, Switzerland.
Trump also met with several major tech executives, having “animated” conversations with Sundar Pichai of Alphabet and Marc Benioff of Salesforce, the New York Times reported.
Today the president will meet with tech leaders from IBM and Apple to discuss a new campaign on educating the workforce. The meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook, which was first reported by Bloomberg News, comes amid an ongoing conflict between the Justice Department and Apple over the encrypted iPhones belonging to a shooter at a Florida military base last month.
But Trump’s announcement at Davos that the United States would join the Trillion Tree Campaign to plant more trees to reduce carbon emissions appeared to win over at least some tech executives. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff applauded the announcement, my colleagues Anne Gearan and Toluse Olorunnipa reported.
— President Trump said that Mark Zuckerberg should “do whatever he’s going to do” when it comes to political ads during a CNBC interview. Facebook has received backlash from Democrats for not fact-checking political ads, a policy many say could benefit Trump. Daniel Dale, a CNN reporter, posted a transcript of the interview, which delved into Trump and Zuckerberg’s 2019 dinner:
Per the CNBC transcript, here’s Trump’s latest account of what Mark Zuckerberg said to him at their 2019 dinner. (Facebook wouldn’t comment.) (Not sure what “number one” means, but for the record, Modi has about 17 million more Facebook followers than Trump.) pic.twitter.com/GC04ejs5dY
— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) January 22, 2020
— The Supreme Court rejected Facebook’s bid to review a court battle over its use of facial recognition technology, Emily Birnbaum at the Hill reports. Facebook may now be on the hook for a multibillion dollar class-action lawsuit alleging it violated an Illinois biometric privacy law.
The plaintiffs for the lawsuit allege Facebook did not seek adequate consent from users when it introduced a photo-tagging feature that suggested a user’s name based on facial recognition software. Facebook petitioned the Supreme Court for a review of an appeals court decision, arguing that the plaintiffs could not prove any “real-world harm.” The case will now resume in Illinois.
— BSA | The Software Alliance launched a “Global Data Alliance” today to lobby governments around the world to promote policies that safeguard companies’ ability to transfer data across borders without legal constraints.
Founding members include Microsoft, American Express, AT&T, Cisco, Mastercard, Panasonic, United Airlines, Verizon and Visa.
— More news from the public sector:
Italy and Britain will face U.S. tariffs if they proceed with a tax on digital companies such as Alphabet’s Google and Facebook, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned.
The Wall Street Journal
—News from the private sector:
— News about tech workforce and culture:
Four months after Barstool Sports co-founder David Portnoy drew criticism for posting anti-union tweets, the company reached an informal settlement with the National Labor Relations Board that calls for the deletion of the tweets and removal of other anti-union material created by the company.
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
Leaving Twitter for Instagram was like moving to Los Angeles, only cheaper.
N 1 Magazine
- The Senate Commerce Committee will host a hearing on “The 5G Workforce and Obstacles to Broadband Deployment” at 10 a.m.
— Coming Up:
- New America’s Open Technology Institute will host an event titled “Privacy’s Best Friend: How Encryption Protects Consumers, Companies, and Governments Worldwide” on Feb. 4 at 12 p.m.
- U.S. Federal Trade Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter will address current technology policy issues during a panel conversation hosted by the Technology Policy Institute on Feb. 5 at 10 a.m.
- Silicon Flatirons will host its “Technology Optimism and Pessimism” conference Feb. 9 and 10 at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. Speakers include Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra.
- Mobile World Congress takes place Feb. 24 to 27 in Barcelona.