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Big Tech lobbying: The US bills tech giants targeted in 2020

New analysis of federal lobbying by the New Statesman Data Team shows which legislation Big Tech fought hardest to influence in 2020.

The amount spent by Big Tech on federal lobbying in the US in 2020 was undimmed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fifteen tech companies spent a combined $96.3m on lobbying in the US, a new project by the New Statesman data team has identified, barely down from the $99m in 2019. This follows a decade of exponential growth in lobbying expenditure.

Using data from the Center of Responsive Politics, and Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) reports, the analysis drew on thousands of records from a decade of federal lobbying by 15 major tech companies: Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, IBM, SAP, Intel, Uber, Lyft, Alibaba, Huawei, ZTE and Bytedance (the owner of TikTok).

The data reveals not just how much the leading Big Tech companies spent each year, but also what legislation they spent it on. Some of the most lobbied bills can include billions or even trillions of dollars worth of funding for various government programmes, and thousands of pages of legislation. In this article, Tech Monitor examines the biggest bills lobbied on in 2020, to determine Big Tech’s interests.

That data itself does not reveal Big Tech’s motives or how they lobbied against particular bills but it reveals which issues they consider to be most important, says Jane Chung, an advocate lobbyist on Big Tech at non-profit Public Citizen. “It definitely gives us a good sense of how much of an effort, and an investment they are making into the government, and to what extent they think that government action could impact their bottom line,” she says. “They would only increase spending if they thought the piece of legislation that would pass would cost them even greater losses.”

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Explore the following interactive to see which bills Big Tech committed their lobbying efforts to in 2020, then read on to discover more about the bills themselves.

 

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National Defense Authorization Act

Every year, the NDAA is one of the most-lobbied bills in Congress. It’s part of two annual bills, along with the Defense Appropriations Act, which oversees the defence budget, worth $740bn. The Authorization Act is specifically responsible for determining the policies under which funds will be allocated.

Much of Big Tech wants their voice in the room when this bill is being written, and this year the 15 companies filed a total of 91 issues and reports on the bill between them. Microsoft, Amazon and Bytedance (TikTok) were among the biggest lobbyers, with Facebook, IBM, Oracle, Intel, SAP, Apple and Huawei also weighing in.

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Bytedance (TikTok) may be a surprising name, as a young company they are new on the lobbying scene and spend nowhere near as much as their American counterparts. But its interest in this bill is clear because it included a ban on the new social media platform across all government devices.

Facebook’s interest could have been related to Donald Trump’s demands that the bill includes a repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media platforms from liability for the content posted on them.

Microsoft and Amazon’s interest may well be because of the dispute over the $10bn Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud computing contract, which Oracle argued was a violation of the NDAA.

Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act

Another of the most-lobbied bills was the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, a bill that, among many other reforms, would eliminate country caps on employment green cards. It has been fiercely contested for years, first being introduced in the 2007–2008 Congress and reintroduced almost every year since.

Microsoft was the biggest lobbyist in Big Tech on this bill along with Facebook, Google and Oracle, Intel, Amazon, IBM and SAP. Microsoft has been outspoken on this issue for years, arguing that the ability to recruit high-skilled workers from other countries ultimately benefits the US economy.

In 2020 the bill finally passed both the House and the Senate, but fell at the reconciliation stage, and will have to be brought over to the next Congress.

CARES and HEROES Act

The two main Covid-19 stimulus package bills were collectively worth more than $5trn and covered a huge range of issues and government departments. The disclosures show that Big Tech lobbied hard across both bills, filing more than 100 issues and reports, but it is hard to pick out exactly where they lobbied.

Amazon lobbied particularly hard on the CARES Act in the early days of the pandemic, which could be related to the debate about payments to individuals, as Amazon benefits greatly from people having more disposable income, especially when brick-and-mortar shops are closed.

There were also large sections of the CARES and Heroes Acts which dealt with telecoms and technology, such as providing funding to school districts to give laptops to students, which could explain Microsoft and Google’s lobbying.

EARN IT Act

The EARN IT (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies) Act was ostensibly aimed at combatting child sexual abuse material online (CSAM). The bill didn’t pass before the end of Congress (meaning it has now been wiped from the books), but it would have amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act – the piece of legislation that protects internet platforms from liability for content posted by users.

Under the amendment, companies would have had to ‘earn’ Section 230 protections by demonstrating compliance with a range of best practices concerning the removal of CSAM, rather than being protected by default. 

Unsurprisingly, the bill was lobbied by Facebook, Google and Microsoft – companies that operate search engines and social platforms that would have been directly impacted by the legislation. They may not all have been lobbying against the amendment, however, as Facebook has broken ranks with industry peers to embrace amendments to Section 230 before – a move critics have described as a ploy to increase the regulatory burden on newcomers in the space. 

The bill’s co-sponsors hinted that it could make Section 230 immunity dependent on building a backdoor in encrypted communications for law enforcement because encrypted channels can provide a hidden means through which to share CSAM. This would have had ramifications beyond search engines and social media networks, which may explain why IBM and Apple also lobbied against the bill.

IBM explicitly said that although it endorsed the concept of social media companies earning the right to Section 230 protections, it strongly opposed any bill that would undermine commercial encryption technology. And Apple filed seven lobbying reports on the EARN IT act, mainly in conjunction with online privacy, encryption, Section 230 and the PACT Act, which purported to be a less controversial alternative to the EARN IT Act. 

After the pushback, the EARN IT act was amended in an attempt to skirt the possibility that tech companies could be instructed to undermine encryption in their services. In its amended form, the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last year and was introduced in the House of Representatives. It didn’t progress from there, but was just one bill aimed at reforming or repealing Section 230 protections – lawmakers proposed many more last year. Before taking the presidency, Joe Biden said he intended to eliminate Section 230. Therefore, it’s likely we’ll see similar legislation proposed again soon. 

CHIPS for America Act

The CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) for America Act was introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers last summer. It called for $22.8bn in aid to semiconductor manufacturers, to ensure US competitiveness against China and to secure future supply chains. 

The bill died with the last session of Congress but would have created a $12bn R&D fund for the sector to be allocated over the next ten years, a 40% income tax credit for semiconductor equipment, and $10bn in federal funds to match state incentives for chip manufacturing. 

The importance of chips is being increasingly hyped in the US’s tech cold war with China, given the country’s role in technologies including 5G and artificial intelligence. Coronavirus, too, has increased wariness about relying on international supply chains. 

Although not a game-changing amount – US chip design and manufacturing companies spent $40bn on R&D in 2019, and setting up semiconductor factories costs upwards of $10bn – the CHIPS investment was billed as a commitment to strengthening the US’s offering in the face of China’s investment in its domestic chip industry. 

Chip manufacturing facilities are now predominantly concentrated in Asia. Although US companies such as Intel and GlobalFoundries are some of the largest chip makers in the world, only 12% of chips are manufactured within the US. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), a trade group comprising major US semiconductor companies, China is predicted to almost double its share of global chip production capacity to approximately 28% by 2030, although that still includes the chip production of foreign companies based in China. 

The CHIPS bill was introduced following lobbying by the SIA for $37bn in federal funding for chip plant construction and R&D. Intel, a member of SIA, suggested the company work with the Pentagon to build and run a chip manufacturing plant to provide for the defence sector. It led the lobbying charge on the CHIPS bill, filing ten lobbying reports. Samsung filed the same number, and other companies in the semiconductor space, including GlobalFoundaries, Micron Technology and Qorvo, also lobbied the bill extensively. Apple and IBM got involved to a lesser extent.   

In the full project, the New Statesman data team dig into how money in politics has changed over the past ten years and speak to experts on how the world of lobbying has become increasingly sophisticated. Read the full project on Big Tech lobbying here.

Katharine Swindells

Data journalist

Katharine Swindells is a data journalist at New Statesman Media Group, writing on technology and lifestyle.

Laurie Clarke

Senior reporter

Laurie is a senior reporter at Tech Monitor.