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Facebook and Google are spending big money to lobby on Russia, sex trafficking and immigration

Along with Apple and Amazon, tech’s new lobbying data show they’re under siege in the nation’s capital.

Facebook COO Cheryl Sandberg speaks with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about Russian ads on Facebook's Platform.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, walks to a meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, at the U.S. Capitol.
Drew Angerer / Getty

Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft spent a combined $14.2 million lobbying the U.S. government last quarter, as some in the tech industry began to weather an investigation into Russia’s election meddling and others tried to battle a host of new regulations targeting their platforms.

New federal ethics disclosures — encompassing a three-month period from July 1 to Sept. 30 — also show how the tech sector’s biggest players trained some of their political firepower toward restoring a federal program that protects from deportation young adults who were brought to the U.S. illegally.

Top of mind for three companies in particular — Facebook, Google and Twitter — is a rapidly unfolding investigation on Capitol Hill into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Next month, the trio is slated to testify to Congress about misinformation spread by Kremlin-backed trolls on their sites. And the grilling could even pave the way for lawmakers to advance new rules governing the way companies sell online political ads, an ever-lucrative market.

One such bill — called the Honest Ads Act — arrived on Thursday, so it had not been introduced during the portion of the year covered in tech companies’ latest lobbying disclosures.

But some tech companies’ reports still suggest that the industry mobilized early as the controversy began to command national headlines.

Facebook, for example, revealed it had devoted some of its $2.8 million from the past three months toward trying to influence Congress and the White House on “online advertising, content and platform transparency efforts.” The social giant has spent nearly $7 million lobbying the federal government this year.

And the Internet Association — a trade group that lobbies in D.C. on behalf of Facebook, Google, Twitter and other tech giants — said it similarly had focused some of its cash on “political advertising disclosure requirements,” according to its report.

Beyond Russia, though, many tech companies have spent more in the first nine months of 2017 to shape federal policy, connect with congressional lawmakers and win the favor of the White House than they did at this same point in time last year, according to a Recode analysis of lobbying records.

If anything, that increase is a reflection that Silicon Valley finds itself in an unprecedented political hot seat, staring down the potential for more aggressive regulation from a government increasingly skeptical of the tech industry’s power and size.

One such battle came this past quarter around a congressional effort to crack down on sex trafficking online. To be sure, the tech industry opposes exploitation. But some of the biggest tech brands still lobbied vigorously against the new bipartisan bill led by Republican Sen. Rob Portman. The reason: The proposal takes aim at a portion of law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which essentially spares tech from being held liable in many cases for the content posted by their users.

The roster of staunch opponents included Google, which shelled out a slice of its roughly $4.2 million last quarter on trying to challenge Portman’s proposal. The company has spent about $11 million on a range of issues, including self-driving cars and some of its so-called “moonshots,” over the course of 2017.

Sex trafficking also registered on Amazon’s radar. It was one of many issues highlighted by the e-commerce giant in its latest report, which also noted its work to lobby the U.S. government on its since-approved merger with Whole Foods. Amazon has racked up a record $9.5 million lobbying tab over the first nine months of 2017, the records reflect.

Even Apple revealed for the first time this year that it had lobbied on Section 230-related issues, its filing reveals, even though the company did not directly mention Portman’s bill by name. Otherwise, Apple spent $1.8 million last quarter — and $5.4 million so far this year — on everything from surveillance and tax reforms to its efforts to protect net neutrality.

And for Apple and its tech allies, a key focus this fall has been DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The program, implemented under former President Barack Obama, had allowed children brought to the U.S. illegally to remain here with work authorizations as adults. Trump, however, opted to kill DACA in September, a move that drew sharp condemnations from the whole of Silicon Valley, where tech giants employ some of its beneficiaries, known as Dreamers.

To that end, companies like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft and Google devoted some of their lobbying resources in the nation’s capital toward seeking a permanent replacement for DACA, their disclosures show. More recently, some of them even joined a new coalition to advocate for the program’s renewal.

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