In a representative democracy, the people who put forth the most time and money tend to have the greatest impact on policy. That means companies often have the most say in the industries they compete in.
The tech sector is no different. Tech companies are spending more dollars lobbying governments than ever before, and they’re getting results. That has a direct impact on the laws and regulations in our areas, shaping our government’s approaches to privacy and civil rights.
What Is Tech Lobbying?
Lobbying is the act of trying to influence policy. While the word has a somewhat negative connotation, there’s nothing inherently wrong with lobbying. Legislators don’t know what legislation to draft, or how to draft it, without outside input. No person can be an expert in all things.
People form groups to lobby politicians around all manner of issues, such as whether to form social programs or to eliminate pollution. Industries lobby government in order to get laws more favorable to their bottom lines or their employees. Tech companies do this, too.
How Much Are Tech Companies Spending?
Among the tech giants, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) spent the most on lobbying in 2017. It spent over $18 million. Apple Amazon spent $13 million. Facebook spent over $11 million. According to This Time It’s Different, Facebook’s spending has increased 5,500 percent since 2009.
Alphabet outspent non-tech companies in 2017 as well. AT&T spent just under $17 million. Comcast spent more than $15 million. Boeing and Lockheed Martin spent over $16 million and $14 million respectively.
You can look up these numbers and more at the US House of Representatives Office of the Clerk website.
How Tech Lobbying Shapes Policy
Most of our constitutions came of age in a time before the internet and consumer tech. Laws either don’t exist or have to be interpreted in new ways in order to accommodate the issues that arise today, such as how to apply copyright law in the internet age.
Companies with stakes in the technology industry want a say in how laws take shape. Let’s look at how this plays out in a few key areas.
Net neutrality is the concept that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. It asserts that no internet provider should be able to limit what sites you visit or prioritize some sites over others.
Who doesn’t like net neutrality? The companies that control network infrastructure. They say they want to better optimize the way they deliver content. But that’s not all. Verizon, for example, also wants to collect data about users to create an ad platform that can rival companies like Facebook and Google.
Google and Facebook, on the other hand, want “neutrality” not out of a sense of moral imperative, but because their business model gets threatened if content isn’t treated equality.
With the companies that control the pipes standing against net neutrality, swaying things the other way requires government involvement. Companies on various sides of the issue invested heavily to sway governments one way or another.
In the US, the Obama administration, which had a warm relationship with Google, Facebook, and Twitter, came down in favor of net neutrality in 2015. The Trump administration, which favors letting industries regulate themselves, undid much of what the previous administration put in place in 2017. Companies like Comcast are now lobbying the federal government to prevent states from putting in place their own net neutrality laws.
You and I may see this as an ethical issue. We can put pressure on our elected officials and sign petitions. But to companies, this is about dollars, and they’re willing to spend millions in lobbying if that means they may make millions (or billions) more in the future. As for our rights? Too often that’s for these companies to decide.
Expanding Internet Access
Want a clear example of companies determining our rights? Take the issue of expanding broadcast access to unserved, typically rural areas. Some towns are willing to pursue a community or local government-based approach to providing that infrastructure to residents.
Unfortunately, broadband providers have lobbied many state governments to make it harder, if not impossible, for localities to take matters into their own hands.
This isn’t merely an American issue. Remember when Facebook wanted to provide free internet access in India, with the caveat of limiting which sites people could visit? The company heavily lobbied the Indian government, but Indians rejected the idea on the basis of—you guessed it—net neutrality. Who was Facebook to decide what sites were accessible?
Apple reportedly spent $7 million on lobbying in 2017, with encryption reportedly an area of focus. The company had a public dispute with the FBI following an act of domestic terrorism in San Bernardino in 2016, in which the deceased attacker had an encrypted iPhone. The FBI wanted in, and Apple said no. The FBI eventually found a different way in, only to find nothing of interest on the device.
This is one area where companies often want to provide encryption in order to increase security for consumers and improve the reputation of their products. Governments, particularly law enforcement, want the ability to bypass encryption in order to assist with investigations or make surveillance easier.
Some companies are more than willing to comply with government requests. Other companies even provide the tools, such as the Israeli security firm that helped the FBI break into the aforementioned phone.
Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles throw a monkey wrench in existing law. Does a person riding in a self-driving car need a driver’s license? Who is at fault in the event of an accident, the owner of the vehicle, the company that sold it, or the company that programmed it? Should self-driving cars even be allowed on the road alongside human drivers?
Car and tech companies have joined ranks to create a lobby group called Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which lobbies government to create standards friendly to the various members. When Nevada became the first state to allow self-driving cars, this came after extensive lobbying from Google.
How do you feel about self-driving cars? Whether you see them as an exciting future or a serious cause for alarm, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t an issue that drives people to the ballot box or floods town halls. It’s companies that are nagging legislators about this kind of legislation, not voters.
What You Can Do About Tech Lobbying
There’s a reason why there are so many lobbyists in capitals around the world. If you take issue with any of the situations above, the solution is to become a lobbyist yourself. Sign petitions (but don’t expect them to lead to direct change), make people aware of the issues, and attend town hall meetings. You must actively inform your representatives what your preferred policy looks like and then put pressure on them to make that change.
Remember, politics is local. It doesn’t matter if thousands of people tweet at a representative in Congress if few of them live in her district. This is part of the reason internet activism often turns into noise.
When it comes to tech, turning up the pressure is particularly challenging. The nuances of encryption and internet infrastructure are hard for people to understand, let alone be passionate about.
As for tech lobbying in particular, you’re paying for their lobbyists just by using their services or products. If you don’t like the changes they’re pushing, you may want to consider signing off or using something else.