A new report from the watchdog group Public Citizen tracks the skyrocketing political spending of the tech giant Google, whose known lobbying and donation activity surpassed all other individual corporations in the first nine months of 2014. Google is shelling out more than a million dollars a month to influence national and state politics, but has so far failed to achieve several of its biggest public goals, including a rule protecting net neutrality, passing comprehensive immigration reform, rewriting the US tax code and patent laws, and electing a pro-tech Congress member to Silicon Valley’s seat.
Public Citizen noted that Google’s political action committee gave $1.61 million to political candidates and parties this year, divided nearly equally between Democrats and Republicans, a common practice to better influence whoever the winner turns out to be in each race. As for lobbying, the company is on track to spend a record $18.2 million on the federal level alone.
Media reports have noted that Google and other tech companies didn’t do so well politically after lavishing millions on the midterm elections. Still, the web behemoth has been overwhelmingly successful on the state level, where they’ve recently helped write laws allowing driverless cars on the roads and killed or stalled attempts to regulate the use of Google Glass.
For example, Illinois State Senator Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) introduced a bill this spring to ban drivers from wearing Google Glass. Six months later, after several visits from Google lobbyists, the bill is still stuck in committee. “They’ve done a good job trying to bottle this up and stop the bill,” Silverstein told ThinkProgress. “I get it, it’s a product they’re trying to sell to the public, but people have a right to disagree and raise concerns. God forbid we don’t act until the first accident occurs.”
Silverstein said “a bunch” of lobbyists from Google have already visited him a couple times, and sent in representatives to demonstrate the technology to the state lawmakers. He said while he and others were impressed with the wearable computer, his safety concerns were not adequately addressed. “It goes right to your vision! It’s very distracting and dangerous,” he said. “This goes right to the heart of driving. We don’t allow texting and driving, so why would we allow this?”
Silverstein said that if the bill remains stalled through December, he’ll have to reintroduce it next year. “In the legislature, we always act after the fact, but I’m trying to be proactive here.”
Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Aggressive lobbying by TechAmerica, which counts Google among its key members, also temporarily squashed a bill in California aimed at giving Internet users more control over their data. The “Right to Know Act” would have allowed customers to ask companies like Google and Facebook to disclose free of charge what personal data they’ve collected on them — and tell them what other companies have access to that data. Advocates say such a law would give web users the information they need to decide whether to opt out of routine corporate data mining, which currently scoops up everything from purchase histories to one’s physical location. In the face of corporate opposition, the bill’s sponsor put the legislation on hold last spring, but has said efforts could be revived in the near future. Depending on the state, such lobbying activity can be subject to much weaker transparency requirements. The Google’s official 2014 disclosure for Illinois only notes that the company lobbied the Department of Commerce, General Assembly, and governor on the topic of “economic development incentives.” Google’s own disclosures of state-based spending have nothing more recent than 2012.
The company’s foray into political power is part of a bigger trend in the tech sector, which largely stayed out of the political donation and lobbying arena until just a few years ago. But Google’s surge in influence — -embodied literally and symbolically in opening a new DC lobbying office the size of the White House earlier this year — -has come alongside other tech corporations boosting their political efforts, hosting political fundraisers, launching major policy campaigns, and seeing to tip the scales on issues ranging from marriage equality to the deregulation of carbon emissions.
While much of this activity remains murky, some of the disclosed spending by Google, Facebook and other firms breaks sharply with their progressive image and stated goals. As this has come to light, shareholders and consumers have mounted campaigns to push these firms to break ties with groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the US Chamber of Commerce — both groups that back politicians who oppose a number of policies Silicon Valley supports.