Facebook Spent Millions Lobbying The Government Over The Years. Has It Been A Total Waste?

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Facebook has spent millions of dollars lobbying the U.S. government since its official inception in 2009. As the company has grown in affluence and influence, so too has the public’s distrust, despite persuasive funding.

People and lawmakers from all ends of the political spectrum in recent months have been sternly chastising the tech giant for various grievances. From a partnership with a Trump campaign-employed data analytics firm that violated a data usage agreement, the purported revelation Facebook compiles certain app users’ call and text logs, to the allegations it helped Russian operatives sow seeds of discord among the American electorate and even influence the 2016 election, Facebook has been hit with several charges of impropriety.

That frustration, even hatred, has led Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to seemingly go from the beloved, fresh-faced entrepreneurial wunderkind to a cunning tech tycoon almost equally controversial to “robber barons” from the late 19th century. The company’s leader is set to testify before Congress Tuesday and Wednesday, prompting the question: has Facebook’s deep-pocketed lobbying efforts been a waste?

“Facebook has a long history of offending conservatives, by crushing conservative opinion and voice on its platform. So, there is little reason to think conservatives will be kind to him,” National Center for Public Policy Research general counsel and Free Enterprise Project Director Justin Danhof told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And now, liberals are furious with Facebook as well. Still unable to reconcile Clinton’s crushing defeat, Facebook has become the latest ‘reason’ that she lost to Trump.”

Danhof, whose unique job is to attend big companies’ shareholder meetings to foster executive accountability, said “Facebook holds conservatives in great disdain.”

“The board is filled with quintessential coastal liberal elites,” Danhof continued. “The politics of the company are so far to the left that the ONE conservative/libertarian board member Peter Thiel has considered resigning.”

With such an outlook, which many others share, particularly those who are conservative, it appears uncertain Facebook’s lobbying efforts have been effective.

“Facebook, or any other company, lobbies the government to look out for their own interest,” Taxpayers Protection Alliance President David Williams told TheDCNF. “From trying to look for regulatory relief (or impose regulations on competitors) or receive government funding, companies lobby for a number of reasons.”

Lobbying is especially “important” for those who think the government has too much power, because it helps increase the impact private entities have on the public sector, Williams argued.

“If you are concerned about lobbying, you should reduce the size of government and cut spending and regulations so there is less incentive [to lobby],” Williams added.

Facebook spent $11,510,000 on lobbying via several government relations (GR) firms in 2017, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets database, a substantial increase from the previous year. That was the third highest behind Amazon’s $12.8 million and Google’s $18 million, and ahead of Apple’s $7 million.

“Over the past decade, Facebook has dramatically increased the amount of money spent on lobbying,” Daniel Newman, president of MapLight, a nonpartisan group that puts “a spotlight on the outsize influence of money in politics,” told TheDCNF.

In total, Facebook has spent $51,581,268 on lobbying since 2009 — an ostensibly sizable number but still relatively small to the tech behemoth’s overall net worth.

“The return on investment is significant, and the data confirms this. Our elected officials respond best to organized groups. Organizations that don’t participate are making a big mistake,” 202works CEO Jon Harsch said. His startup helps connect businesses and policymakers. “It’s important to look at Facebook in perspective. Facebook has a relatively small advocacy team, when compared to other large tech companies. Microsoft has 24 GR firms on retainer. Google has 27. Comcast has 38. Facebook only has 10.”

Still, Facebook either felt the pressure in more recent months or organically knew to bolster its self-advocacy endeavors as it swelled in power and thus was thrusted into societal debates.

“Facebook does a great job with public policy,” Harsch added. “In the last year, they have significantly scaled up their public policy and advocacy teams. They’ve added five consulting firms and almost doubled their public policy budget.”

Facebook currently has several job listings for outreach and policy-related roles, apparently showing an intensified interest in hiring people to help influence the government in their favor.

The company declined to comment on-the-record but pointed to language included in its political engagement report.

“It is important for Facebook to develop relationships with elected officials and candidates for public office who share our vision of an open Internet and a culture of innovation,” the compliance reporting section states. “No campaign contribution will be made with the expectation that Facebook will receive something in return.”

But some seem to see large companies financially vying for their ideal policy as not the most emblematic of democracy.

“It is all too easy for the interests of average citizens to be overlooked while professional lobbyists set priorities for Congress,” says Newman. “Although we all have the right to lobby our representatives, the balance of power is heavily skewed to favor organizations spending millions to promote their agenda.”

Facebook also contributes to the debate through an official political action committee.

“Under US campaign finance law, Facebook (like all corporations) is prohibited from donating directly to federal political candidates,” the company’s compliance report continues. “Since many Facebook employees wish to support federal candidates who share their goal of making the world more open and connected, we formed Facebook, Inc. PAC (FBPAC) in 2011.”

Although not technically lobbying, Facebook and its workers through the political action committee donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent, respective election cycles — some of which went to lawmakers who will interrogate Zuckerberg during the aforementioned hearings. The inverse — in which presiding congressmen own Facebook stock — is also a potential point of contention or conflict of interest.

Harsch expects Zuckerberg to be “well-prepared” for his respective testimonies, adding he doesn’t have to answer questions he is unsure about and can confer with his team after the hearing before providing additional information.

Zuckerberg may have some difficulties, communications firm Levick Director Bryant Madden told Politico.

“For all his intellect, he’s not a natural communicator. He’s starting at a deficit, and this is going to be a big challenge for him,” Madden said, describing Zuckerberg and how the hearings may go.

“He will be attacked from both sides, so not fun for him,” said Garrett Johnson, co-founder of the Lincoln Network, a “liberty-minded” nonprofit that looks to encourage groups and people to focus on the intersection of tech and freedom. “[The hearing] is going to go bad. But, they had little choice.”

Just like Harsch, not everyone is so certain about the negative prospects of testifying. Nor is it clear if Facebook’s lobbying efforts have been successful.

It’s certainly arguable that dipping into its coffers for certain abating and policy-shaping efforts helped lead to the corporations’ indisputable success. Once a relatively simple social media platform, Facebook turned into a tech conglomerate with a stake in various industries and projects in several areas. Also, Zuckerberg has been one of the top-10 richest people in the world for quite some time.

Perhaps the balance or restraint, relative to other giant firms in Silicon Valley, is the appropriate attribution for such success.

But just as 2016 was arguably one of the worst years for the internet, 2017 and the first quarter of 2018 may be the worst for Facebook specifically, even despite all of its attempts to cultivate good will among society and public officials — and to create and connect communities.

The general positive perception of big tech companies like Google, Amazon and Apple all recently took a precipitous dip of 12, 13 and 10 points, according to a March 26 Axios survey. Facebook’s favorability ratings dropped 28 points in the same roughly five-month time span.

Still, the overall outlook of Zuckerberg and Facebook may improve, according to Williams and Harsch, who both say it was a good idea to agree to have the CEO and face of the company become the recipient of stern, very public questioning.

“Zuck has the opportunity to show that Facebook can be accountable and that the buck stops with him,” Harsch said..

However, Facebook’s big lobbying bucks will likely never stop with Zuckerberg, regardless of how valuable they have been so far.

“Facebook is a tech giant and publicly traded company. They have a responsibility to their shareholders, employees and users to be active in the policy-making process,” Harsch stated. “Organizations that sit on the sidelines are missing a massive opportunity.”

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