Regardless of which party controls the U.S. government after next month’s elections, Washington’s interest in how Internet companies use customers’ data will continue to grow, and so these tech companies have recognized the need to spend more money on lobbying legislators. Unlike with some other industries, however, their investment is not limited to traditional lobbying methods. They are looking to their users to put pressure on Congress as well.
Computer and Internet companies have enlisted elite firms clustered on Washington, D.C.’s K Street in their efforts, according to Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes government transparency by putting information online. Google even hired former congresswoman Susan Molinari earlier this year to head its Washington office. The companies have also been inching up their spending. Last year, the computer and Internet industry spent US $127 million on lobbying, up from $123 million in 2010 and $120 million in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). Spending is trending up again this year, at least by a few million, based on the $65 million figure for the first six months.
The most notable increases, however, are by two of the hottest U.S. Internet companies. Google’s lobbying costs are on track to have nearly quadrupled in the past two years, rising to $9 million in the first half of 2012, according to tallies by the CRP. In fact, last year Google surpassed all other companies in the computer and Internet category, beating the previous top spender—Microsoft—by more than $2 million. Facebook’s spending has also quickly accelerated but is still just a fraction of Google’s.
But this year, tech companies also discovered new political muscle when a grassroots campaign rallied Internet users to petition Congress, leading to the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill would have required websites and search engines to cut off access to non-U.S sites that the government suspects of copyright infringement. Key Internet companies—including Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter—opposed SOPA. But what got the most attention were constituent complaints, which were encouraged by Internet rights advocates such as Fight for the Future, Engine Advocacy, and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). The tech companies rode that groundswell of public opinion; Wikipedia blacked out its website in protest. Google weighed in by covering its logo in black.
It was a watershed moment, making a huge impression on Congress, Internet firms, and Internet-rights advocates as well. Holmes Wilson, codirector of Fight for the Future, says the organization simply “stumbled across this new tactic,” realizing that it could team up with Internet companies that would then appeal directly to their users. (In truth, there was a similar campaign in 1996.) If these companies “align themselves with the interests of individual users…you have this powerful coalition that can really stand up to any other industry and any other lobbyist,” he says. In fact, in the wake of SOPA, Fight for the Future has formed a new group, called the Internet Defense League, to do just that. “With the Internet Defense League we want to take those tactics that were so successful in defeating SOPA and try to turn those tactics into an ongoing effort and a permanent force for defending the Internet,” says Holmes.
They aren’t the only ones. A new crop of organizations and partnerships is forming to try to influence Internet policy. During the third quarter of this year, several tech companies formed the Internet Association. According to several news organizations, Google, Facebook, eBay, and Amazon are among the founding members. The association, which was scheduled to launch in mid-September, said on its website that it represents both leading Internet firms and “their global community of users” and is “dedicated to advancing public policy solutions to strengthen and protect an open, innovative, and free Internet.” Michael Beckerman, most recently a top aide to House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton, is its president.
Advocacy groups and tech companies are keeping in close contact, says Michael McGeary, political director and senior strategist of Engine Advocacy, which promotes the interests of start-ups. “There was a lot of talk during SOPA between lobbyists at big companies and some of these emerging groups, and a lot of that has kept going,” he says. “We are all thinking about [how to] combine our forces on some of these initiatives.”
When their interests align, such a combination “could be a very politically effective relationship,” says Mark Stanley, campaign and communications strategist of CDT, which promotes policies to retain and promote Internet freedom. “Even with all the traditional lobbying money in D.C., what still actually works is millions of ordinary citizens rushing to make phone calls.”
Of course, the interests of users and the interests of the companies won’t always align. Consumers have been critical, for example, of the way these companies collect and use data about their users. “On privacy, they might be on the opposite side of their customers,” says Allison of the Sunlight Foundation. “You won’t see them using that strategy then.”
This article originally appeared in print as “Lobbying 2.0.”