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Lobby, Donate, Hire, Repeat

How Big Tech Is Using the Inside Game to Slow Down Antitrust Reform

Introduction and Key Findings

Proposals to rein in the world’s largest technology companies have gained steam in recent years. The American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), introduced in the House and Senate in 2021, is a bipartisan bill that, if passed, would prohibit some of Big Tech’s most anticompetitive practices, especially self-preferencing and gatekeeping of essential online marketplaces.

AICOA would prohibit large platform owners (Google, Meta, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, TikTok) from using their dominant market power to unfairly advance their economic interests over other firms. For example, AICOA would stop companies from artificially elevating their own products to the top of search results. It would also stop companies from using non-public data to copy products from small retailers that sell on their platforms and would prohibit the removal of competitors from platforms for self-serving reasons.

By November 2022, Bloomberg estimated that Big Tech and its allies had spent more than $120 million in attack ads against AICOA. The ad spending had an effect, blunting AICOA’s momentum in Washington. Although public support for the bill is high, members of Congress wavered in the face of blistering opposition on the airwaves. Tech funded ads falsely claimed that AICOA would end Amazon Prime, increase inflation, and harm national security.

Along with millions in attack ads, Big Tech companies – led by Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta, known as the Big Four – deployed an overpowering inside game to stymie AICOA. This analysis focuses on three main categories of inside pressure: lobbying, contributions, and connections. Doing so revealed that those opposed to AICOA have been able to overwhelm supporters in every category, often by wide margins.

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AICOA Opponents Deployed Twice the Lobbying Power as Supporters

Analyzing federal lobbying data, Public Citizen identified instances in which a lobbyist was hired to engage Congress on the House and/or Senate versions of AICOA. After determining the position of the entity hiring the lobbyist, Public Citizen found, among other things:

  • Lobbyists opposed to AICOA were responsible for 603 lobbyist engagements. Supporters were responsible for 256, giving the opposition more than a two-to-one advantage.
  • Amazon and the Chamber of Commerce were both responsible for 119 lobbyist engagements in opposition to the bill, the most of any entity in this analysis. They are followed by Apple (57), Meta (53) and Google (41).
  • The Big Four tech companies combined for a total of 270 engagements – 45 percent of all bill engagements in opposition – and more engagements than all AICOA’s supporters combined.

AICOA Opponents Spent Six Times More Than Supporters Lobbying on All Issues

Lobbying disclosures do not reveal how much entities spend on lobbying around a specific issue or a bill. But the money these entities spend on all their lobbying provides insight into the size of their footprint on Capitol Hill. Using data from OpenSecrets.org, Public Citizen found:

  • Over the last two years, entities opposed to AICOA have spent nearly $277 million on lobbying on all issues, giving them a six-to-one advantage over supporters, which have spent about $45 million.
  • The Big Four combined have spent $106 million on lobbying on all issues over the past two years, more than two times the amount spent by AICOA supporters combined.

Opposition Lobbyists Contributed $2.3 Million to Members of Congress in 2022

Many lobbyists hired to lobby on AICOA contribute significant amounts of money to members of Congress. While there is often news coverage of campaign contributions by corporations’ PACs, there is typically less attention paid to contributions by actual lobbyists. These contributions are potentially the most influential because they are believed to entice lawmakers and their staffs to grant meetings with lobbyists. Analyzing contribution data provided by OpenSecrets, Public Citizen found, among other things:

  • Lobbyists opposing AICOA contributed more than $2.3 million Congress during the 2022 cycle while lobbyists supporting it contributed just $734,000, giving the opposition a three-to-one advantage.
  • Lobbyists for the Big Four contributed more than $2 million to the current Congress, amounting to nearly 90 percent of the money contributed by lobbyists opposed to AICOA.
  • Over the past two decades, AICOA-opposed lobbyists contributed a combined total of $9 million to members of the current Congress.

Former Staff of the Judiciary Committee and Congressional Leadership Swarmed DC to Lobby Against AICOA on Behalf of the Big Four

The Big Four deployed 38 individuals to lobby against AICOA who were previously employed by the House and / or Senate Judiciary Committees or the members of Congress that serve on them. The Judiciary Committees have jurisdiction over AICOA.

  • Amazon deployed 20 lobbyists with Judiciary Committee connections, the most of the Big Four. Apple hired 9, the second most.
  • Amazon’s Judiciary Committee hires include Ryan Dattilo, Chief Counsel for the Committee on antitrust issues until January 2021; Sean Pugh, Counsel to the antitrust subcommittee until 2020; Bobby Parmiter, Deputy Staff Director and Chief Counsel until 2020; and Jason Everett, Deputy Chief Counsel for the committee until in 2019.

In total, 14 lobbyists deployed by the Big Four to lobby against AICOA worked for the most powerful members in congressional leadership. Five former staffers of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lobbied against AICOA for the Big Four, the most of anyone in leadership:

  • Ex-McConnell staffers now lobbying for the Big Four against AICOA include two former chiefs of staff who served him for a combined 30 years: Billy Piper who lobbied against AICOA for Apple and Kyle Simmons, who did the same for Google.
  • A former chief of staff to Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) was hired by Apple in 2021 after working for Thune since 2013. In a glowing 8-minute floor speech, Thune said he hoped Rossi “won’t mind the occasional phone call to pick his brain on some of the issues that are facing the Senate.” Rossi also worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee as Chief Counsel from 2006 to 2009.