The world’s largest technology companies are pouring money into the largest foreign policy think tanks in the United States as they seek to advance the argument that stricter competition rules will benefit China.
Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are behind an increase in funding for four of Washington’s most prestigious research groups: the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for New American Security, the Brookings and the Hudson Institute.
Total donations from Big Tech companies to the four think tanks have risen from at least $ 625,000 in 2017-18 to at least $ 1.2mn in 2019-20, according to a Financial Times analysis of financial revelations. These figures can be as high as $ 1.2 million. in 2017-18 to $ 2.7 million. in 2019-20.
Not all groups have published figures for 2020-21, but those who have also shown that technology donations are rising again.
While the money spent is relatively small for the companies involved – Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple each have a market value of more than $ 1 tn – funding has increased as technology groups join the oil and gas industry among the top donors to think about. . -thought.
Technology companies have been building their presence in Washington for several years as they fight cross-policy attempts to regulate them more strictly in terms of everything from privacy to content moderation.
There has been similar lobbying around the world, but especially in Brussels, where EU officials have shown a strong appetite for welcoming US technology groups with antitrust investigations and new rules.
Silicon Valley’s largest companies have been focused on influencing the US foreign policy elite, at a time when measures are being considered to tackle their market power in a way that tech executives have argued risk letting Chinese tech giants become more powerful.
A spokesman for the Hudson Institute, which has been taking money from Facebook since 2018, said: “[Facebook has] supported our work in analyzing the threats to US competitiveness from a growing China, particularly in terms of data and research and development. “
A focus on national security and a more aggressive stance toward China are among the few areas of relative political consensus between Republicans and Democrats.
Last month, U.S. law on innovation and elections went online through the Senate committee stage, despite strong lobbying against it from the companies concerned. The bill would prevent technology groups from using their platforms to provide preferential treatment to their own products.
Some of the people associated with the foreign policy think tanks have been vocal defenders of Big Tech recently, including 12 former top national security officials, who signed a letter last September urging Congress to stop working on bills. designed to sharpen antitrust enforcement.
The signatories of the letter include Dan Coats, who served as director of the U.S. National Intelligence Service under Donald Trump, and Leon Panetta, who served in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Former officials argued against competition law passing through Congress, saying they would put Chinese companies like Huawei and Tencent “in a better position to assume global priority”. Their letter used very similar language as in a white paper published by the Computer and Communications Industry Association at the same time, which warned of the risk of stricter regulation.
People close to the Biden administration said lobbyists were increasingly focused on similar arguments during private meetings.
“They throw spaghetti on the wall and see what’s sticking out,” a Democratic official said. “At the moment, they seem to think that the arguments for national security are sticking.”
The think tanks themselves have refused to be influenced by corporate donations from the technology industry.
Andrew Schwartz, Head of Communications at CSIS, said: “Large technology companies have become more and more interested in national security issues, in which we have expertise due to the growing strategic competition between Washington and Beijing, along with increased privacy issues.
“Obviously, these companies want to be better educated, learn from our expertise and understand how we think about the policy issues that we study.”
Shai Korman, CNAS’s communications director, said: “CNAS maintains strict intellectual independence and exclusive editorial leadership and control over its ideas, projects, publications, events and other research activities.”
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From 2016 to 2021, Internet companies increased their spending on lobbying in the United States from a total of $ 60mn to $ 92mn, according to government figures collected by the non-profit organization OpenSecrets.
Online businesses have also increased their spending on technology-related think tanks, such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, which conducts research on industry-specific issues.
Since 2018, many of these companies have also become active funders of research in foreign policy and national security. Brookings received at least $ 620,000 from the four technology organizations in 2019-20 and at least $ 1 million. in 2020-21. For CNAS, the figure rose from at least $ 250,000 to at least $ 350,000 over the same period.
Bruce Freed, president of the Washington-based Center for Political Accountability, which argues for stricter technical rules, said: “Funding think tanks is a great way to influence experts and help shape the political conversation in a way that helps you.
“This is not traditional lobbying, but these companies are looking to shape the conversation and shape the political climate. If they spend that money, they expect a return.”
Google said: “We have been openly contributing to organizations across the political spectrum for over a decade to encourage a robust debate on good technology policy.”
Facebook, Amazon and Apple did not respond to requests for comment.