Among its peers, Google is an unparalleled lobbyist. Between April and June 2017, Google spent $5.4 million lobbying the federal government, more than double the lobbying budget for Apple, a comparable global behemoth that also has to fend off regulatory scrutiny. The tech giant has also long funded a lengthy roster of think tanks, academics, and nonprofits that grapple with issues that could seriously impact Google’s bottom line, such as privacy, network neutrality, and tax reform.
So when the New York Times reported that the New America Foundation (a Google-funded think tank) severed ties with Open Markets (an antimonopoly group housed within New America) after complaints from a top Google executive (Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company), it seemed like a rare glimpse at how Google wields its power behind the scenes. Emails between New America and Open Markets reviewed by WIRED and others also give greater insight into the way that funding from Google can influence a policy group's internal dynamics. The cornerstone of Open Markets’s advocacy work is the idea that consolidation of power erodes political liberties and democratic values. But the dustup shows how easy it would be for Google to manipulate public debate on national issues without leaving much of a fingerprint.
A Google spokesperson tells WIRED that its financial support does not interfere with any think tank’s “independence, personnel decisions, or policy perspective." But in emails, New America’s CEO and president Anne-Marie Slaughter comes across as more of a conduit than a firewall between New America’s donors and intellectual work of its scholars.
Want to understand how dominant tech companies have become? Look at the number of issues they lobby on.
A Washington Post analysis shows just how broad tech companies’ interests have become in the nation’s capital.
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 Silicon Valley's lobbying portfolio helps illustrate the industry's growing influence on everyday consumer life. 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 past decade. 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. Lobbying shifts paint the portrait of an industry that’s 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.
In this first tumultuous summer of the Trump Administration, the Trump International Hotel has cemented its status as a gathering spot for prominent conservatives and a place for the president’s supporters to see, be seen and curry favor with people in power, one $24 chocolate cigar at a time. (The selfies are free.) The hotel — a melting pot for Trump family members, Trump surrogates, tourists, YouTube celebrities, journalists and the occasional white nationalist — has earned that status in no small part because it is home to the only Washington restaurant that President Trump visits.
His company also earns a cut — about $20 million over 15 months, according to financial disclosure forms — which has outraged ethics experts and led to various lawsuits, including one filed in January against the Trump administration by a group of lawyers. They accused the president of violating the Constitution by allowing his hotels and other businesses to accept payments from foreign governments. Several visits in August by reporters for The New York Times confirmed that some of the swamp’s most prominent Republicans come out at night and gather in the lobby of the 263-room hotel, conveniently located on Pennsylvania Avenue five blocks from the White House.
When the Federal Communications Commission went looking this year for experts to sit on an advisory committee regarding deployment of high-speed internet, Gary Carter thought he would be a logical choice. Carter works for the city of Santa Monica, California, where he oversees City Net, one of the oldest municipal-run networks in the nation. The network sells high-speed internet to local businesses, and uses the revenue in part to connect low-income neighborhoods. That experience seemed to be a good match for the proposed Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC), which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai created. One of the panel’s stated goals is to streamline city and state rules that might accelerate installation of high-speed internet. But one of the unstated goals, members say, is to make it easier for companies to build networks for the next generation wireless technology, called 5G. The advanced network, which promises faster speeds, will require that millions of small cells and towers be erected nationwide on city- and state-owned public property. The assignment seemed to call out for participation from city officials like Carter, since municipal officials approve where and what equipment telecommunications companies can place on public rights of way, poles and buildings. But the FCC didn’t choose Carter — or almost any of the other city or state government officials who applied. Instead the FCC loaded the 30-member panel with corporate executives, trade groups and free-market scholars.
When President Donald Trump ordered federal agencies to form teams to dismantle government regulations, the Transportation Department turned to people with deep industry ties. The lack of transparency has concerned several top Democratic members of Congress who serve on committees that oversee regulatory matters.
In a letter to the White House on Aug 7, they called on the administration to release the names of all regulatory team members as well as documents relating to their potential conflicts of interest. The congressmen cited a recent investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times revealing that members of the deregulation teams have included lawyers who represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political dark money groups and employees of industry-funded organizations opposed to environmental rules. Since the publication of that investigation in July, the news organizations have identified more than a dozen other appointees through interviews, public records and reader tips — including the three appointees to the deregulation team at the Transportation Department. In all, there are now 85 known current and former team members, including 34 with potential conflicts. At least two of the appointees may be positioned to profit if certain regulations are undone and at least four were registered to lobby the agencies they now work for.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre gave a remarkable speech during which he offered up a vast, loosely aggregated opposition that was the new threat for gun owners to fear: “leftists,” anarchists, criminals and, of course, “national media machine.” “For the first time, we also face an enemy utterly dedicated to destroy not just our country, but also Western civilization,” he said — not of foreign invasion, but of liberals and the media.
The organization and its online television network, NRATV, has also made ads specifically targeting media outlets, including The Washington Post and, this week, the New York Times. The NRA is spending money to pitch the media in particular as a threat to gun owners.
President Donald Trump went on a Twitter rampage July 24 and 25, spewing a number of false and misleading claims — many of which we have fact-checked previously. The President tweeted, "So many stories about me in the @washingtonpost are Fake News. They are as bad as ratings challenged @CNN. Lobbyist for Amazon and taxes?" as well as, "Is Fake News Washington Post being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly?"
We will begin with a pair of tweets attacking The Washington Post, which is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Amazon does not own The Post, but in any case the president’s claims about “no-tax” Amazon are out of date. Amazon used to lobby to keep Internet sales free from state taxes, but no more. As of March, Amazon is collecting sales tax on purchases in every state that has one.
Republican House leadership told Facebook, Google and Amazon that overly aggressive net neutrality activism could make it harder to work together on other policy issues the firms care about, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.
The message was delivered in a meeting the day before dozens of internet companies protested the Federal Communications Commission's plan to unwind network neutrality rules. Tech companies are walking a fine line in speaking out against Trump administration policies — and net neutrality is particularly sensitive. On one hand, they generally support the rules (even though they are now so big that they don't necessarily need them) and their employees care deeply about the issue. On the other, they are asking Congress for help on touchy issues like consumer privacy and legal liability for content on online platforms that would have major business ramifications.
Three of the largest internet service providers and the cable television industry’s primary trade association have spent more than a half-billion dollars lobbying the federal government during the past decade on issues that include network neutrality, according to a MapLight analysis.
Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) have spent $572 million on attempts to influence the Federal Communications Commission and other government agencies since 2008. The amount represents more than $100 for each of the 5.6 million public comments on the FCC’s proposed elimination of net neutrality rules. Despite the resources devoted to the rollback by the big internet service providers, net neutrality advocates haven’t been totally bereft of support in the nation’s capital. Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, has spent $41.1 million lobbying in the nation’s capital. Facebook, which boasts 2 billion unique monthly users, has spent almost $43.3 million.
Google operates a little-known program to harness the brain power of university researchers to help sway opinion and public policy, cultivating financial relationships with professors at campuses from Harvard University to the University of California, Berkeley. Over the past decade, Google has helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying stipends of $5,000 to $400,000, The Wall Street Journal found.
Some researchers share their papers before publication and let Google give suggestions, according to thousands of pages of e-mails obtained by the Journal in public-records requests of more than a dozen university professors. The professors don’t always reveal Google’s backing in their research, and few disclosed the financial ties in subsequent articles on the same or similar topics. The funding of favorable campus research to support Google’s Washington, D.C.-based lobbying operation is part of a behind-the-scenes push in Silicon Valley to influence decision makers. The operation is an example of how lobbying has escaped the confines of Washington’s regulated environment and is increasingly difficult to spot.