COMMENT | For the first time since records began in 1998, technology firms have topped the list of the biggest spenders on lobbying. Between them, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple spent a cumulative US$50 million on getting their cases across to America's elected politicians in Washington.
Topping the list was Google, spending US$18 million on lobbying congress, federal agencies and the White House, according to disclosures filed to the Senate Office of Public Records. Their main areas of interest? Lobbying on immigration, tax reform and antitrust laws saw the search giant's spend rise by almost 17%.
Next up: Amazon. The online retailer spent US$13 million in lobbying in 2017, up 16% on its 2016 spend. The firm lobbied on tax reform, immigration and specifically its acquisition of Whole Foods.
Facebook followed, with around US$11 million of federal lobbying spend (up 32%) – largely on the topics of online advertising, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), net neutrality and tax policy. Apple made the biggest increase, upping its lobbying game by 51%, but still spending a relatively modest US$7 million on lobbying over medical apps, driverless cars and action on climate change.
The Big Four's increased spending gives the Washington lobbying industry a far more technology-focused flavour, squeezing out the usually big players of telecom, energy and defence contractors.
On one hand, this is bad news if you worry about the growing influence of tech behemoths on government policy. But if it's any consolation, they didn't get great value from their millions this time...
Trump's presidency – as it has with so many other things – appears to have turned the rules of the game on their head. Or at least moved the goalposts considerably. Just look at the areas that Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook really care about and you can see that US$50 million of lobbying has amounted to a very small hill of beans indeed. Net neutrality is dead, immigration reforms that threaten the company's staff look set to go ahead, and the less said about climate change the better, where President Trump is concerned.
While there were victories in there – the tax plans were a win for most Silicon Valley firms, while Amazon scored a major victory in a tiny section of the National Defense Authorisation Act – you get the impression that for the most part the tech industry is discovering what commentators like myself assumed for a long time: the Trump administration is very hard to influence.
That sounds like a positive, and I suppose you could take it that way if you worry about the poisonous influence of lobbying on politics. Careful what you wish for, though: to my mind, it points less to a driven sense of civic duty, and more to a dysfunctional White House led by a president with a notoriously short attention span.
And that's not even considering his ability to bear a grudge against those he has perceived to have wronged him. See his ongoing vendetta against Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, which threatens to overrule even the most persistent of lobbyists.
Will throwing more lobbying money at the problem work? Unlikely. Tech firms are probably better off taking their US$50 million lobbying spend and redirecting it to buy adverts in between segments of Fox and Friends. An alarming amount of presidential policy seems to stem from there, rather than the career politicians that Google et al are wasting their influence upon.