Big Tech companies are infamous for their massive lobbying muscle in Washington D.C., where they spend roughly $100 million annually to try and manipulate the policies meant to govern them. In 2020 alone, Facebook and Amazon spent more money on lobbyists than did Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing—major players in the defense-industrial complex.
The shadow influence of Big Tech on the institutions and academics of public policy formulation is just as significant, although far less transparent. For more than a decade, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple have been dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into the think tanks and research arms of universities, paying for the intellectual infrastructure to support their favored policies. Who they pay, and how much, is only disclosed if the recipient deigns to make it public.
To tackle this problem, the American Principles Project (APP) has recently announced a new tool designed to help both the public and lawmakers make sense of where Big Tech money is flowing and to whom. Using what data is publicly available, they’ve developed a browser extension for use on Google’s Chrome browser that interfaces with Twitter to disclose which users are affiliated with organizations funded by Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. In many cases, if organizations are funded by the big four and receive money from Microsoft or the technology company Oracle, that information is flagged as well.
Their effort provides much-needed clarity in an area that is notoriously murky. While lobbyists have to register and disclose their work, the disclosure of donations to think tanks, academics, and the public policy process is largely optional.
This allows Big Tech companies to launder lobbying for public policy outcomes through the veneer of independent analysis from both left and right perspectives. As APP puts it, Big Tech donations to think tanks are “inherently transactional rather than charitable, with full-time staff and consultants dedicated to disseminating talking points and tracking deliverables.”
This can result in some truly Potemkin levels of absurdity. The Federalist’s Emily Jashinsky observed this recently when the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank heavily funded by Amazon, Facebook, and Google, put out a supposedly independent list of “investment heroes,” that ranked Amazon at the top.
Amazon immediately snapped up the plaudit and paid for an ad in Politico, a news outlet widely read by policymakers in Washington, to highlight it. As Emily put it, “Amazon funds a think tank that ranks it as a top investor, then uses that ranking to sponsor a newsletter touting the award.”
Think tanks, of course, exist to provide intellectual direction for policymakers. There is a significant role for outside experts in DC policy formulation, both in providing expertise not housed in Congress, and bringing to bear thoughtful scholarship and analysis.
But if and how Big Tech companies are attempting to influence the outcome of this research has largely been unclear. All the companies provide some level of disclosure about the “third party” groups they fund, although it’s usually buried in obscure PDFs in cobwebbed corners of shareholder information websites, and it generally does not include the amount of funding provided (institutional disclosures indicate contributions to think thanks are usually in the roughly low to mid six figures). The contours of Big Tech’s intellectual influence, in other words, have been difficult to define.
Reporting suggests the influence is vast. Last year, The New York Times made note of the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from Google and Amazon and a “three year, multimillion-dollar donation” from Qualcomm that went to the Global Antitrust Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. The institute regularly writes, argues, and testifies in front of Congress for a hand-off approach to antitrust enforcement.
Tech-funded third-party groups also engage in a practice called “grasstopping,” recruiting small business owners to write op-eds in local papers supporting Big Tech’s positions, largely without disclosing their involvement.
Following a practice pioneered by the pharmaceutical industry, Google also makes a robust practice of paying professors at universities to write papers defending against regulatory challenges. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google had funded roughly 100 academic papers on public policy matters since 2009.
Some of those papers end up weighing in on consequential public policy decisions. When the Federal Trade Commission decided not to pursue an antitrust case against Google in 2013, agency economists advising that approach cited as partial justification a study by Google and two academic papers funded by grants from Google.
The opaqueness clouding Big Tech’s think tank influence has always been its defining feature. The biggest companies in the world are able to make their case in Washington with the same rights as the rest of us, but the size and scope of their efforts should be easy to see and understand.
“Sunlight,” Louis Brandeis once noted, “is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Our self-government is only beginning to grapple with how the country will engage with the biggest and most powerful companies the world has ever seen.
The debate that follows will involve many voices. And if some of those voices are amplifying the concerns of the companies at issue, that information should be widely available. APP’s Big Tech Funding project is a welcome contribution to that end.