Big Tech’s Rivals Pounce At Chances To Win In Washington

WASHINGTON — For years, the country’s biggest technology companies have been virtually untouchable in Washington. The public adored the companies’ new devices, educators embraced their tools and politicians extolled their contributions to the economy. Even traditionally powerful voices, like media and telecom businesses, found little success in criticizing the technology industry.

But now, as lawmakers look into how Russia used Google, Facebook and Twitter to influence the 2016 presidential election, many critics see a rare opening — and are lining up to take their shots.

The reviews site Yelp, which has long complained about the size and power of Google, has filed a new federal antitrust complaint against the search giant. Media organizations are arguing, to a more receptive Capitol Hill, that internet businesses should have the same advertising disclosure rules that print and television companies do.

And the support behind a sex-trafficking bill, which tech companies argue could make them the unfair target of lawsuits, reads like a Who’s Who list of companies that have long complained about tech’s sway in Washington, including the Walt Disney Company, Oracle and 21st Century Fox.

“We’ve had low points, when we were out of energy and felt like we weren’t heard,” said Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive of Yelp. “But we feel we have a clean slate now.”

The action is nascent, but gaining momentum fast. Lawmakers are pushing for regulations for technology companies for the first time in years, encouraged along by big tech’s broad assortment of rivals. For several weeks, a group of companies including smaller tech companies and entertainment and retail businesses has informally begun regular meetings and conference calls to compare notes about Google, Facebook and Amazon and to find a way to join in a stronger opposition force.

“Before, any negativity was a risk for the media business because if you were critical, you could be defined as not getting it and being old school,” said Jason Kint, chief executive of Digital Content Next, a trade group that represents entertainment and news organizations, including The New York Times. “But now the halo is a bit off these companies.”

In recent years, lawmakers have held up technology companies as the epitome of American ingenuity and felt that voters did not want the government to slow them down. That attitude was hardened in 2012, after lawmakers suffered a bruising defeat in a bill to strengthen antipiracy rules for internet companies. The proposals set off huge online protests, aided by the big technology companies, that helped stop the legislation.

“Over the years, I’ve watched as the major tech companies not only sought to protect the unlevel playing field they already had, but have used their political influence to expand it to disadvantage businesses with which they compete,” said Jim Cicconi, who recently retired after years overseeing lobbying at AT&T. “Now I think policymakers are seeing the consequences.”

But even as they sense an opportunity today, the rivals say that challenging the internet companies remains a daunting task. They doubt they can put a dent into the online ad duopoly of Facebook and Google. It will also be difficult, they say, to restrain Amazon’s fast movement into new markets, given the company’s willingness to lose money to gain a foothold.

Internet companies are deploying some of the largest armies in corporate America to battle on Capitol Hill. House and Senate staffs say lobbyists for the big technology companies have swarmed their offices in recent weeks. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft have sharply increased their lobbying spending — a combined $14.2 million in the third quarter, up from $11.9 million a year earlier. Facebook, which has faced the most scrutiny over the election, increased its third-quarter lobbying budget this year by 40 percent, to $2.85 million.

The technology companies go to lawmakers to talk about how their businesses are creating jobs and providing free or lower-priced services for consumers. They also regularly mention donating money for public science, technology and math classes.

“It is unfortunate that companies that have been slow to innovate in a changing consumer-first marketplace are looking for wins through regulation or by scoring cheap political points,” said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a lobbying group that represents Amazon, Facebook and Google.

The tech giants are also lodging a strong defense against the newly proposed regulations. Facebook and Google hired high-profile political operatives to thwart changes in election disclosures at the Federal Election Commission and have deployed lobbyists to water down a bipartisan bill introduced last week that would require social media platforms to disclose the financing behind political ads.

Still, their rivals say that for the first time in many years, criticism of Silicon Valley is getting a receptive audience.

The clearest opening has been in an unpopular battle that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have waged against a bill aimed to curb sex trafficking. The bill would take away some legal protections for sites that knowingly host content that promotes sex trafficking, a move that the internet companies warn could stifle free speech, even though it would largely exempt the big tech companies from liability. Disney, Oracle and 21 Century Fox have endorsed the legislation.

The tech companies initially pushed back vigorously against the bill. In recent weeks, though, some of them have softened their stance, saying they hope to seek a compromise.

“It’s past time to dispel the myth that big internet firms cannot or should not be accountable for their business,” Chip Smith, the executive vice president for global public affairs at 21st Century Fox, “and that includes the personal data they collect and the content and behaviors they promote and profit from online.”

The tech companies are playing defense on other fronts as well. In September, Yelp said it had filed a complaint against Google with the Federal Trade Commission. In the complaint, Yelp argued that Google had violated a promise it made to the commission in 2013 that it would not reuse the content of competitors for its own advantage.

Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, recently wrote the commission to ask it disclose information about why it closed its case on Google in 2013. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, has asked the agency to reopen its investigation in light of new evidence that surfaced in the case led by European regulators.

In July, the News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 news organizations including The Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, began advocating for antitrust exemptions that would allow the companies to collectively bargain with Facebook and Google for ad revenue. On Tuesday, David Chavern, president of the group, argued at a House hearing that digital platforms like Google and Facebook should follow the same rules that broadcast and print news organizations do.

“In the fall, you will see us getting increasingly vocal about Google and Facebook and the future of the news business,” Mr. Chavern said in an interview before the hearing.

Even nonprofit consumer interest groups are taking advantage of the situation. John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, who is a longtime critic of Google’s collection of personal data, has pushed for online privacy rules and restrictions for self-driving vehicles. He has struggled to get attention in the past, but that is not much of a problem now.

“I’m getting more calls these days,” Mr. Simpson said.

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