Hey Google, who’s the biggest-spending lobbyist in Washington? It’s you

The internet giant spent US$18m in 2017 lobbying on issues ranging from immigration to tax reform, becoming the first tech firm to top the spending chart of Washington influencers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 11:58am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 January, 2018, 11:58am

Google for the first time spent more than any other company in 2017 to influence Washington, highlighting both the sprawling reach of the country’s thriving tech industry and the rising concern by regulators and lawmakers of its ascendance.

All told, the search giant spent more than US$18 million to lobby Congress, federal agencies and the White House on issues such as immigration, tax reform, and antitrust. It also spent money to weigh in on an effort by lawmakers and regulators to regulate online advertising, which is at the core of Google’s business, according to disclosures filed to the Senate Office of Public Records.

The non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics said Tuesday no technology firm had ever claimed the top spot since it began tracking lobbying expenditures by individual companies in 1998.

Google was not the only tech giant to ramp up spending in the nation’s capital. Facebook, Amazon and Apple all broke their own company records by pouring money into lobbying operations. Facebook increased spending by 32 per cent in 2017 over the previous year, while Apple increased its expenditures by 51 per cent. Combined, the four companies devoted about US$50 million toward lobbying efforts during President Donald Trump’s first year in office.

Last year was pivotal for Silicon Valley and the broader world of tech. Industry executives publicly clashed with the president on hot button issues, such as immigration and climate change. Social media companies were hammered by lawmakers for allowing Russian operatives to spread divisive content on their platforms before and after the 2016 presidential election. And the potential for tech companies to abuse their market power is drawing scrutiny from regulators.

Despite soaring profits and stock prices, the industry also faced public backlash, as issues such as sexual harassment, the spread of hate speech, and political bias by tech companies gained greater currency in the national debate.

Corporate lobbying typically has been dominated by telecom, energy or defence firms. Last year, the other top spenders were AT&T, Boeing, and Comcast. But tech companies have been quickly rising within the ranks of big Washington spenders for years.

Google, long the industry leader on federal lobbying, boosted its spending by nearly 17 per cent over 2016. The company’s Washington operation paid close attention to proposed legislation, introduced in October, that would require Web companies to create a public database of political ads that run on their platforms, including details of the purchaser’s contract, the intended audience, price, and the number of views the ads generate. The lawmakers behind the bill say the rules will help prevent Russia and other foreign powers from exploiting popular online platforms. Both Facebook and Google have told federal election officials they are open to greater oversight over the lucrative business of online political advertising.

Google did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Facebook spent more than US$11 million on federal lobbying in 2017. In recent weeks, the social media giant has been wrestling with the implications of its global influence, even admitting in a blog post this week that social media can sometimes harm democracy.

In addition to lobbying the federal government on online advertising, Facebook also focused on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, net neutrality and international tax policy. Facebook declined to comment.

Amazon, which is considering three different locations in the Washington region to build its second headquarters, spent nearly US$13 million in lobbying last year, a 16 per cent increase from 2016. Amazon lobbied on issues such as corporate tax reform, immigration, and the Whole Foods acquisition.

The company’s US$13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods sparked criticism from some lawmakers and industry analysts who say that current antitrust law is ill-equipped to address a tech dominated corporate landscape, where troves of consumer data and operations that span several industries offer Web giants unfair advantages.

Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice-president of public policy, said in a statement, “As one of the biggest job creators in the country, we’ve expanded our team in Washington, the District of Columbia to ensure we are able to cover the growing range of topics that are important to policymakers, our employees and our customers.”

Apple spent just over $7 million, an increase of 51 per cent from 2016. The company lobbied on issues including climate change, mobile medical apps and autonomous vehicles. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.