If youve ever visited Washington, the moment you touch down in an airport, ride the Metro, turn on local TV, or look at the sides of buses, you will find yourself bombarded by messages that you may not understand, from organizations youve never heard of, talking about legislation or some other initiative you dont know. These messages, confined to either downtown D.C. or the insider political tip sheets and newsletters, arent for the ordinary American or even the ordinary Washingtonian. They are intended for members of Congress, regulatory staff, and policymakers, as part of a targeted campaign, usually from big business, to win special favors or block anything that would affect their profits.
In a new series, the Prospect will pick one of these only-in-D.C. campaigns and untangle it, so you are aware of what Americas giant lobbying engine has been doing while you were going about your life.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will note that the Prospect runs on the Google suite of tools. There arent a whole lot of other options if you want to run a business remotely, particularly one that involves sharing of documents and spreadsheets and other media.
This explains why we keep getting messages from Google, encouraging us to speak out about new legislation that could disrupt your ability to reach customers and run your business. Last week, we received another one of these messages, warning us that organizations representing the interests of American businesses have voiced concerns about this bill.
The three organizations cited were the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Progressive Policy Institute, and Springboard, a publication of the Computer & Communications Industry Association. All three of these organizations receive funding from Google. So Googles letter was referring businesses to outside validators who were, in effect, Google.
The Google letter is part of a very robust campaign from the dominant tech platforms, which are attempting to stop two bills: the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, and the Open App Markets Act. The first bill would end self-preferencing, where tech platforms offer up their own products ahead of their competition in search results or other ways. The second would prevent mobile phone giants Google and Apple from forcing app developers to essentially pay them a large toll for access to their users.
Both bills have broad bipartisan support in Congress and both could get votes on the Senate floor as soon as this month. Thats what Big Tech is attempting to prevent, out of concern that the platforms would lose their iron grip over the online (and increasingly offline) economy.
A whopping $36.4 million has been spent on advertising against the Big Tech bills since the beginning of 2021, compared to less than $200,000 in favor. $13.7 million of that has been spent just since May 1. Most of these ads have been targeted at the home states and districts of members of Congress that the tech industry wants to flip to its side.
As the Prospect has reported, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised that the bills will get a vote this summer. But he hasnt committed to a date, and other senators are trying to get that vote delayed, so they dont have to show their hand in public and can do the tech industrys bidding in darkness. If the bills actually get a vote, its expected that they will pass.
Thats why the industry is working so hard to stop the bills and defeat the broad coalition supporting them, from progressive anti-monopoly groups to the Center for American Progress to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to conservative organizations to dozens of competitors to the giant tech companies. The industry campaign has floated a number of different arguments, from saying that the bill will boost Chinese tech companies over U.S. counterparts to saying it will force an end to Amazon Prime and other services. But the latest tactic has been to claim that Americans care more about inflation than the tech industry, and therefore nothing should be done to break Big Techs power.
The D.C. tip sheet Punchbowl News obligingly featured this message last week in its newsletter, in an ad (which looked like editorial copy) promoting a poll from the American Edge Project with the heading Voters Focused on InflationNot Breaking Up Big Tech. The American Edge Project, boasting a staff including former New Mexico governor Susana Martinez (R) and former congressman Chris Carney (D), is a dark-money project launched by Facebook.
The poll is made up of a series of leading statements, asking respondents to agree with lines like there are other, bigger problems facing the United States, we should not be focused on breaking up U.S. tech companies right now. Other poll topics include whether U.S. tech companies could fall behind China, the idea that tech regulation could harm national security, and the impact of regulation on small business.
None of these ostensibly more desirable options actually are being held up by these two bills. Its not like Democrats have some sparkling anti-inflation legislation ready to go with bipartisan support. In the realm of the plausible, creating actual competition online, as the two bills would do, is one way to potentially bring down prices.
The national-security-mongering is similarly a distraction. But as with all of Big Techs lobbying campaigns, the American Edge poll and even the talking points very obviously only exist because of Big Tech. Several of the national-security officials who have been speaking out against the legislation are on Big Techs payroll.
Anytime Big Tech tries to generate some genuine organic pushback against the bills, it has blown up in their faces. On June 2, Amazon vice president Dharmesh Mehta placed a note on their Seller Central message board, urging third-party sellers to speak to their senators against the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. Virtually all the responses from sellers took the side of the legislation, while condemning Amazon for spreading propaganda.
In another blunder, Amazon mistakenly forwarded an email to Politico in which a spokeswoman told a consultant to claim that the bills would hurt communities of color. Would it be possible for you all to push this with some of the newslettersPolitico tech, Politico Health, etc., the spokeswoman wrote. Google was caught doing something similar earlier this year.
Thats whats behind Googles little note to us at the Prospect. They are hoping to get an actual human being who isnt as clearly dependent on Google for their livelihood to mobilize against the bills. In the message, Google cited Ryan Berry of Berry Digital Solutions in Ohio, who recently met with his Senator (they dont say which one) to express concerns about the unintended consequences of anti-tech bills.
Some of the small-business testimonials that Big Tech and its allies have put forward have not panned out. A Politico investigation in March found that thousands of small businesses were listed on a directory of the Connected Commerce Council, an astroturf group opposing the bills, but 61 of the 70 businesses the reporters contacted said they were not members of the group.
Google openly states that businesses are often an influential voice in policy discussions, which of course we all know. But the ham-fisted way in which Google and its Big Tech counterparts have been fighting the legislation that means to rein in their practices has sapped some of that influence. Their targeted effort in home-district ads and policy newsletters may yet succeed. But for companies with this much money to fight regulations, they really shouldnt be as bad at this.
And just to wrap up, we have not asked our senators to oppose these bills. But thanks for the update, Google!
Are you in D.C. and have you seen a particularly odd lobbying campaign? Let us know at info[at]prospect.org.
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