Wednesday, June 23

Big Tech spends $20 million on lobbying, including on coronavirus bills

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely via videoconference during a U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on “Online Platforms and Market Power” in this screengrab made from video as the committee meets on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2020.

U.S. House Judiciary Committee via REUTERS

The Big Tech companies of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google combined to spend over $20 million on lobbying in the first half of 2020, with part of their focus on legislation that was meant to combat the economic downturn of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Facebook and Amazon have been the leaders in lobbying investments throughout the past six months. The social media giant spent just over $10 million, a record amount for its lobbying efforts in the first half of the year, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Amazon also broke records, investing a bit above $10 million in lobbying over that same time period. 

Out of the many congressional efforts the tech juggernauts tried to influence, issues relating to coronavirus legislation were part of their lobbying itinerary, according to disclosure reports reviewed by CNBC. This effort included, at times, the CARES Act, which was meant to give relief to small businesses through a federal loan program known as the Paycheck Protection Program. That program has been implemented by the Small Business Administration and has led to billions of dollars in loans.

The lobbying also comes as these companies have been under scrutiny by Congress, the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general about the potential violation of antitrust laws. The CEOs of these companies — Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai — all faced questions from Congress at a hearing Wednesday. 

The House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust released a trove of documents after the hearing that provide a clearer picture of the four tech giants’ approach to competition.

Still, most of the four companies did not answer questions on what specifically their companies were looking for through their lobbying campaigns when it came to the coronavirus relief efforts. 

A spokesman for Facebook said it was focused on supporting small businesses but did not respond to follow-up requests for comment. Facebook has publicly stood by small businesses through the pandemic. The company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, previously said on her own Facebook page that the company was moving ahead with a $100 million grant program to support small businesses.

Apple declined to comment while Google and Amazon did not respond to emails seeking comment. 

However, there are some disclosures that give clues as to the likely objectives of the tech giants when they started lobbying on coronavirus-related issues.

Amazon, for instance, tapped Subject Matter, a lobbying shop co-founded by longtime Democratic political strategist Steve Elmendorf, to lobby Congress and the Executive Office of the President on “issues related to federal and private sector testing protocols for Covid-19,” one of the disclosure forms says. The focus came in the second quarter, which spans April through June. The United States started to see recorded coronavirus cases at the end of the first quarter, in March. Over the first three months of the year, tech giants went on a lobbying spending spree. 

In April, Amazon workers were in the midst of a protest to call attention to what they called a lack of protections for employees who continued to come to work amid the coronavirus outbreak. Amazon paid Subject Matter $60,000 for their work in the second quarter. 

Then there’s Apple, which over the same time period, turned to Invariant, a lobbying group founded by Heather Podesta, the wife of lobbyist Tony Podesta. The filing shows that Invariant lobbyists were looking to make inroads on a coronavirus-related bill known as The Heroes Act, which recently passed the House. The filing suggests that Apple was also trying to make an impact in the space of virtual learning, as most schools across the country were forced to shut down. 

Invariant lobbyists planned to “educate policymakers about the supply chain for technology to support distance learning activities in education systems,” the disclosure report says. 

Elmendorf’s firm also saw a $60,000 payout from Facebook in the second quarter. It focused in part on the CARES Act but also on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which became law earlier this year. 

Google, although it spent the least amount on lobbying, turned to at least three outside firms to focus on coronavirus relief. 

— CNBC’s Lauren Feiner, Steve Kovach and Annie Palmer contributed to this report.

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