AT&T spent nearly US$7.1 million on lobbying the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama's administration in the first quarter of 2012, making it the leading corporate spender on lobbying, with Google, Comcast and Verizon Communications also making the top five.
Google, facing antitrust scrutiny in Washington, D.C., spent more than $5 million on lobbying in the quarter, trailing only AT&T and conglomerate General Electric.
Google's lobbying expenses have skyrocketed in the past year, rising from $1.5 million in the first quarter of 2011 to $3.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to lobbying disclosure documents made available by the Office of the Clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ranking No. 4 among businesses in lobbying expenses for the first quarter of 2012 was Comcast, at $4.6 million. Verizon was No. 5, at $4.5 million, spending more than pharmaceutical powerhouse Merck, at just under $4.5 million, oil giant Exxon Mobile, at $4.2 million, and major government contractors Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
Lobbying expenses include salaries of lobbyists, media campaigns, research and other spending focused on influencing the outcome of legislation.
A representative of AT&T didn't respond to a request for comments on the company's lobbying expenses.
Google defended its lobbying efforts. "As we have seen over the last year, there are a number of technology issues being debated in Washington," a spokeswoman said in an email. "These are important issues and it should be expected that we would want to help people understand our business — the work we do to keep the Internet open, to encourage innovation, and to create economic opportunity."
Google critic Consumer Watchdog said the company's increased lobbying expenses show it has bought into the "corrupt Washington power game.
"Google claims its motto is, 'don't be evil,' but the amount of cash they are throwing around demonstrates an astounding cynicism," John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, said in an email.
Although AT&T and Google sometimes come down on opposite sides of issues such as net neutrality, the two companies appear to be more focused on looking out for their own interests than in fighting each other, said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog.
"AT&T is trying to corner the mobile and cable carrier delivery markets in the U.S., while Google is trying to corner the Internet and mobile advertising markets," he said in an email. "They are often on opposite sides of many policy issues, but rather than duking it out, I believe the big money is really spent for each companies' growth to corner their respective markets."
Both companies are focused on growth, Court added. The lobbying expenses are "about power, money and conquest more than policy differences," he said.
Google is a new entrant into the list of top lobbying spenders. In 2011, General Electric led all companies in lobbying spending, at $26.3 million followed by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, ConocoPhillips, AT&T and Comcast. Including trade groups in the list, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce topped all lobbying spending in 2011, at $66.4 million, according to OpenSecrets.org.
AT&T's lobbying disclosure forum listed several issues the company lobbied lawmakers about. The company talked to lawmakers about the DNS blocking provisions in controversial copyright bills the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), and it lobbied on several health-care bills.
AT&T, which abandoned its plan to buy mobile competitor T-Mobile USA in the last quarter of 2011, also focused on telecom and mobile tax legislation, on cybersecurity and online privacy bills, and on legislation to bring more mobile spectrum to market.
Google opposed SOPA and PIPA in its lobbying efforts. It also focused on cybersecurity legislation, on online privacy and tracking bills, and on free trade agreements, according to its lobbying disclosure form.
A handful of trade groups also spent more than $5 million on lobbying during the first quarter. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major supporter of SOPA and PIPA, spent $20.2 million on lobbying during the quarter. The National Association of Realtors spent $6.1 million, the Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform spent $6 million and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the American Farm Bureau Federation each spent about $5.3 million.
The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, representing cable broadband and TV providers, spent $4.3 million on lobbying during the quarter.
Other tech companies reporting lobbying expenses for the quarter included Microsoft, at $1.8 million, Hewlett-Packard, at $1.6 million, IBM at $1.5 million, and Oracle at $1.1 million. Facebook and Apple remain relatively small players in the Washington lobbying game, spending $650,000 and $500,000 respectively.
Facebook spent just $41,000 on lobbying in the first quarter of 2010, growing to $230,000 in the first quarter of 2011.