The five biggest technology companies in the U.S. have poured more than half a billion dollars since 2005 into lobbying Congress on issues ranging from privacy to tax laws.
From 2005 to 2018, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft spent a collective $582 million trying to influence Capitol Hill, according to a new report from vpnMentor, even as some of those companies tried to privately battle growing concerns about their handling of user data.
But in the past month, political attacks on the country's largest tech companies have continued to increase, with U.S. regulators ratcheting up the pressure as they begin to undertake sprawling antitrust investigations.
Facebook, for instance, revealed on Wednesday that officials at the Federal Trade Commission launched an antitrust investigation into the social media behemoth -- the same day the company agreed to pay a $5 billion fine for privacy violations, the largest penalty ever levied by the regulatory body.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is examining Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon for monopolistic activities, attempting to determine whether the companies' dominant market positions are adversely affecting consumers.
All this comes as some presidential candidates, including Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, call for the break-up of big tech.
The pressure-cooker environment could, however, upend what's normally a cozy relationship between Capitol Hill and Silicon Valley, which has long relied on Washington for support.
“Big tech companies such as Facebook and Google spend millions to convince us and lawmakers that it’s ok for them to use and exploit our data, or that this is just an inevitable conclusion of our online activity,” Ariel Hochstadt, the co-founder of vpnMentor, said.
The study found that priorities for each of the tech companies varied. Facebook and Google, for instance, frequently talked about privacy, while Apple was the only of the five to lobby to preserve “technical barriers to trade,” mentioning it in 21 percent of their reports.
Here’s a closer look at the issues these tech behemoths sought to influence for the better part of the past two decades, according to the study.
Apple: In addition to lobbying for “technical barriers to trade” (it mentioned in 21 percent of its reports, which had an attached total of $8.3 million) Apple often mentioned taxes, which appeared in 76 percent of reports filed by the Cupertino, California-based company. That’s perhaps not surprising, because the iPhone maker has become famous for avoiding taxes through a series of offshore tax mechanisms.
Amazon: Like Apple, Amazon’s No. 1 priority was taxes; 59 percent of the reports filed by the e-commerce behemoth mention it. Again, like Apple, Amazon is known for the maneuvers it employs to dodge taxes; in 2018, for the second year in a row, Amazon paid $0 in federal income tax.
However, Amazon also referred to artificial intelligence quite frequently, ultimately spending $14.3 million on that.
Facebook: Facebook’s No. 1 issue was privacy, which it mentioned in 61 percent of their lobbying reports to date. The social media giant also detailed “government surveillance” in $12.6 million worth of their reports in 2018 -- the same year that it was accused of mishandling the 2016 presidential election. Facebook first began lobbying laws related to breaches in 2011, in $800,000 worth of their reports. That number leaped to $12.6 million in 2018, when the company revealed a number of breaches that affected millions of users’ personal data.
Google: Privacy was also the top issue for the search engine giant; it discussed “privacy” in 64 percent of its reports. That was followed by “competition,” which Google mentioned in 47 percent of their reports. Google has faced scrutiny, particularly in the European Union, over its dominance. This year, in fact, EU regulators hit Google with a $1.7 billion fine for preventing its rivals from placing online search advertisements.
Microsoft: Taxes were the top concern of the company, mentioned in 54 percent of its reports. The company also spent $9.9 million on government surveillance in 2018.