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by Ian Karbal, OpenSecrets.org, The Center for Responsive Politics
Plagued by criticisms of its moderating practices, a congressional antitrust probe and a recent executive order from President Donald Trump explicitly naming the company as a potential threat to free speech, Facebook spent $4.8 million on lobbying in the second quarter of 2020, following a record-breaking first quarter that saw the company spend over $5 million.
Facebook is on pace to spend more on lobbying in 2020 than it ever has in a single year. This follows two consecutive record-setting years for the company that saw it spend $12.6 million and $16.7 million on lobbying, respectively. The social media giant currently deploys 65 lobbyists.
The company, and the tech industry more broadly, is facing bipartisan scrutiny from lawmakers who have proposed multiple bills aimed at eliminating legal immunity that currently prevents social media platforms from being held accountable for content posted by users under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Calls for reform, which vary in shape and scope, have come from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
One of these bills, the EARN IT Act, was advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 2. The bill, introduced by Sens. Graham and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), aims to tackle the issue of child pornography on the internet by laying out a set of best practices for tech companies to follow, and stripping Section 230 immunity for those that don’t meet its standards. But some experts have warned the bill’s language is overly-vague and could potentially threaten encrypted communication, an important tool for journalists, dissidents, members of the government and citizens concerned about privacy. Facebook, Apple, Google and Twitter have all cited the bill specifically on recent lobbying disclosures.
Another bipartisan bill, The PACT Act, sponsored by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and John Thune (R-S.D.) was introduced in the final week of June. It purports to be a less controversial alternative to the EARN IT Act and will go before the Senate Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet subcommittee on July 28.
Facebook also hired prominent lobbyist Dave Lugar of the Lugar Hellman Group, marking the company’s first outside lobbying hire of the year. Lugar was hired on June 1 to lobby on “Issues related to online advertising, content and platform transparency efforts.” Lugar has represented Google on similar issues.
The hire came a month before the impending release of an independent civil rights audit that lambasted Facebook’s refusal to moderate hate speech, inaccurate or misleading posts aimed at suppressing or confusing voters, as well as the company’s blanket refusal to regulate politicians. American Civil Liberties Union executive Laura Murphy wrote that in spite of some progress fighting discrimination, extremism and attempts at voter supression, “those gains could be obscured by the vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made that represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”
Facebook appears to have reversed course, just today adding a label encouraging people to get voting information to a Trump post that claimed voting by mail will lead to a “CORRUPT ELECTION,” and affixing the same message to a post by Biden. The company says the link to its own page on voting information will be attached to all future posts about voting, whether they violate the company’s policies, come from a politician, or otherwise. The move, which doesn’t actually fact-check the posts, has been criticized by the Biden campaign and Facebook critics.
In a separate decision, Facebook will also add a label to all politicians’ tweets that violate the company’s policies that incites violence or aims to suppress voting. The aim is to strike a balance between allowing for newsworthy posts from important figures and the company’s own rules on harmful content.
More recently, the company has been scrutinized for what many activists see as a willing refusal to moderate hate speech and extremism, the focus of Murphy’s report. The outrage has led to a boycott by nearly 1,000 advertisers, including major companies Ford, Microsoft and Coca-Cola. In late May, a number of Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout in protest of the company’s moderation policies.
Facebook’s most recent disclosure shows the company lobbying on a number of issues such as immigration reform and DACA, cyber security, internet privacy, free speech and a number of trade agreements.
Facebook and Google CEOs, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai, as well as Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, have agreed to testify before Congress for an ongoing antitrust investigation of the tech industry. Of the executives, only Bezos has never testified on the Hill before. The companies spent a combined $53.6 million on lobbying in 2019, led by Amazon with $16.8 million. So far this year, their combined spending is $27.6 million
The hearing will be held on July 27, the day before the PACT Act will get a subcommittee hearing. Details on the format, including how or whether the four competitors should be questioned together, are still being discussed. But a spate of letters from Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) have threatened to turn the antitrust probe into a spectacle. On July 7, Jordan sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), asking to move the hearing out of the antitrust subcommittee and in front of the full committee. The letter accused Democrats on the subcommittee of not taking the hearing seriously and of misrepresenting Republican views to the companies’ lawyers.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the antitrust subcommittee, has long pushed for such an investigation. In a March 2019 letter to the Federal Trade Commission, Cicilline wrote “given all that we’ve learned recently about Facebook’s predatory behavior, it’s clear that serious enforcement is long overdue.”
While a representative of Twitter will not attend the hearing, Jordan also sent a letter on July 8 to CEO Jack Dorsey requesting information on the company’s moderating policies. The letter appears to be a response to Twitter’s decision to affix a warning to some of Trump’s tweets, labeling them misinformation or potential calls to violence. Twitter’s decision apparently spurred the executive order from the president. In the letter, Jordan references the popular, but unproven, claim of “discrimination against conservative voices” by the platform.
Twitter has spent $740,000 on lobbying this year on issues including “content moderating practices,” “misinformation,” and the “Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship.”
This article originally appeared on OpenSecrets.org on July 21, 2020, and is republished with permission under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.