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Google, telecom rivals spend big on lobbying and lawmakers

By   /   September 2, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Part 5 of 6 in the series The Google Administration
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GOOGLE THE LOBBYIST: Google narrowly tops the telecom industry in lobbying the past four years, showing the power it and its rivals hold in Congress.

 

As Google’s business has grown in recent years, so has its lobbying expenditures, and the $16.66 million it spent to win influence in Congress was tops among telecommunications companies in 2015.

Lobbying and campaign funding data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that Google’s top telecom rivals, AT&T and Comcast, contribute to most members of Capitol Hill, demonstrating the wide swath of access these companies enjoy.

Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc. have been among the top telecom lobbying spenders for the past several years.

  • In 2012, Google spent $18.22 million, ranking it eighth overall and tops in telecom.
  • In 2013, Google spent $15.8 million, ranking it 12th overall and second in telecom (Comcast led with $18.81 million).
  • In 2014, Google spent $16.83 million, ranking it 10th overall and second in telecom (Comcast led with $17.02 million).
  • 2015’s $16.66 million total ranked Google 12th overall (the spending was through its now parent company Alphabet Inc.).
  • So far this year, Alphabet Inc. has spent $8 million on lobbying, ranking it 11th overall and behind AT&T’s $8.55 million.

In the years 2012-15, since it began ramping up lobbying efforts, Google/Alphabet leads telecom companies in lobbying, though the race is neck-and-neck: $67.51 million for Google/Alphabet, $66.26 million for Comcast and $63.97 million for AT&T.

Alphabet Inc. was a supercomputer among Commodore 64s in the internet lobbying industry in 2015. Its $16.66 million in lobbying was nearly double the amount spent by Facebook ($9.85 million) and Amazon ($9.39 million.) Consider that Yahoo, eBay, Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, Yelp, PayPal, Snapchat, LinkedIn and Expedia combined spent less than $10 million on lobbying in 2015.

Digging deeper into the lobbying numbers reveals that Google is the top lobbyist on a number of corporate issues in 2016, as measured by the number of lobbying clients working on each issue. These include Copyright, Patent and Trademark, Labor, Antitrust & Workplace, Consumer Product Safety and Science & Technology.

Spokespeople from Google and Comcast said their companies didn’t have a comment on the topic.

Those telecom companies are still dwarfed by the heavy hitters of lobbying, such as the National Association of Realtors ($173 million from 2012-15) and Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($91 million from 2012-15.

Google is also a top contributor to 31 members of Congress, meaning the company ranks in the top 100 for most contributions to those lawmakers. But that pales in comparison to the 272 members of Congress to which Comcast is a top contributor, which is dwarfed by AT&T’s contributions to 341 politicians on Capitol Hill, nearly two-thirds of the Congress.

The Center for Responsive Politics notes the money thrown around by telecom companies yields plenty of influence. In a blog post examining the power of that industry’s lobby after the Federal Communications Commission approved so-called net neutrality rules in 2015 that would allow it to regulate the internet like a utility, CRP noted telecoms have plenty of friends in Congress that might fight back against the FCC.

“Not only does [Comcast] have the cash to catch the attention of lawmakers, it has a small army of lobbyists to deliver the donations and the company’s message,” CRP wrote.

Influence beyond lobbying

John M. Simpson, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, told Watchdog.org that Google also spends money in other ways to influence the public discussion.

“They also do a lot of funding of nonprofits and think tanks that helps them shape the public debate,” he said. “In some ways that’s more insidious.”

Simpson said that funding often yields reports and studies that are favorable to Google — research the public might not know is funded by the tech giant.

“You don’t generally bite the hand that feeds you, and Google has found friends and supporters that way,” he said.

A prime example is a forum hosted by George Mason University in May 2012 to discuss Internet search competition. Attendees included regulators from the Federal Trade Commission, who were in the middle of an investigation of allegations  that Google was gaming its search engine to favor related companies.

The Washington Post reported that Google had a heavy hand in selecting speakers for the event, who as a general rule argued against the need for government intervention in Google’s practices.

The FTC would rule the following year that Google was not using unfair methods to influence search results.

Google gives money to a wide variety of groups, who lean both left and right politically.

Google is a member of at least 40 trade associations and membership organizations, “representing the broad range of issues we care about,” the company says in a voluntary disclosure on its website.

“We choose these memberships and sponsorships after carefully determining that each organization can help advance the open Internet, our issues, partner with us to shape meaningful policy discussions and help us engage with key constituencies and organizations,” the company wrote.

It’s unclear how much money Google gives to each group, but the website says the ones listed represent “politically-engaged trade associations and other tax-exempt groups that receive the most substantial contributions from Google’s U.S. Public Policy and Government Affairs team.”

That team also provides financial support to at least 100 independent third-party organizations, a list that includes the American Conservative Union, the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Latino Coalition, the Progressive Policy Institute and the Women’s High Tech Coalition.

The Post notes the number of groups funded by Google has doubled in the past four years. Like most corporations, Google doesn’t reveal the size of these donations.

Part of 6 in the series The Google Administration

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Johnny Kampis is National Watchdog Reporter for Watchdog.org. Johnny previously worked in the newspaper industry and as a freelance writer, and has been published in The New York Times, Time.com, FoxNews.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A former semi-professional poker player, he is writing a book documenting the poker scene at the 2016 World Series of Poker, a decade after the peak of the poker boom. Johnny is also a member of the Investigative Reporters & Editors network. You can follow him on Twitter @TuscaloosaJohn or reach him via email at jkampis@watchdog.org.