The conventional wisdom in the nation’s capital is that President-elect Donald Trump is bad news for Silicon Valley technology giants and their policy agendas. And it’s easy to see why that’s the script.
Throughout his campaign, Trump teed off on internet companies. He theorized that Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 to influence federal policies and warned the largest online commerce retailer it would “have … problems” if he became president. Trump ridiculed Facebook Inc. founder Mark Zuckerberg’s pro-immigration stance. And Trump charged Google Inc. with favoring Hillary Clinton by prioritizing positive news stories about her in search results.
Even Trump’s invitation to tech’s biggest executives to meet him in New York this week could result in a frosty encounter.
But dig a little deeper and a more complex tale emerges. In recent years, internet firms and their trade associations have spent lavishly to become some of the most powerful influencers in Washington, shaping a range of policies that extend from immigration to privacy to taxes. And that may be difficult to change. Companies such as Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent), Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and their trade groups such as the Internet Association spent $50.9 million on lobbying in 2015, more than four times what they spent in 2009, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Center for Public Integrity. Campaign contributions from these technology companies, many less than 10 years old, quintupled between 2009 and 2016.
The investments reflect lessons sometimes painfully learned. Just a few years ago, America’s technology companies held a bemused disdain for Washington, which they saw as an anachronism in the emerging digital culture. But times have changed, and so have the stakes— as digital devices and apps have advanced to collect more of consumers’ personal information. So internet companies have turned their sights and pocketbooks on Congress and additionally have involved themselves on boards and committees that inform the agencies writing oversight rules.
In 2003, at the tender age of 5, Google hired its first two lobbyists, and spent a comparatively paltry $80,000. In retrospect, it almost seems quaint. In 2015 the company had 84 lobbyists, spending $16.7 million, coming in just short of the top 10 biggest spenders, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Facebook, a relative newcomer in Washington, has ramped up its spending from a scant $208,000 in 2009 to nearly $10 million last year, with 31 lobbyists, according to CRP. More recently, Twitter and Uber have come to Washington spending millions more. Overall, internet companies, as the Center for Public Integrity defined them, now employ nearly 500 lobbyists in Washington — almost three times the number just five years ago — to weigh in on everything from privacy to patents to antitrust to security.
The digital companies, which additionally include Yahoo Inc., eBay Inc. and Netflix Inc., have also grown more comfortable in recent years with their newfound power, showing willingness to push back hard on bills or take other actions that may affect them, said a senior Senate staffer who works on consumer privacy issues.
The result: a veritable freeze for the past seven years in new laws or regulations covering such issues as consumer privacy, which for decades was an annual rite of passage in Congress. Same for securing data. Meanwhile, the emergent giants have succeeded in holding on to controversial policies they favor, like specialized immigration visas for programmers and other tech positions.
“This is an historic shift and it has consequences,” said Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown University, describing the growing influence of these firms. “Internet companies wield an outsized influence, but it's not so much the power to pass new laws as it is the power to say ‘no.’”