Amazon just became one of the top 10 retailers in the United States, it has laid waste to bookstores, and it’s looking to expand its brick-and-mortar presence while trying to deliver packages with its own fleet of drones. But that frenetic growth and ambition hasn’t converted into Washington influence, something the company hopes to remedy with last week’s hiring of former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Other technology heavyweights, from Google and Microsoft to Apple, have already boosted political spending as their ambition extends well beyond laptops and search results.
Big Tech’s big hope is that high-priced D.C. insiders like Carney can cut through regulatory hurdles that threaten to derail a host of ambitious plans.
Taking on Carney, who served as President Barack Obama’s spokesman from 2011 to 2014, puts Amazon just a call away from the most powerful lawmakers in the country. It’s a sea change for a company that’s remained mostly quiet in Washington even as rivals have jumped into the lobbying frenzy. But Carney’s hiring also puts an exclamation point on the idea that, if the cool kids in Silicon Valley really want to take over the world, first they need to make nice with Washington power brokers.
Unlike Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other giants that have spent the last few years building up their public policy departments, Amazon has mostly tried to go it alone, and without much success.
Google has spent more on lobbying than any other corporation since 2012 has. Part of the reason is the company’s plan to develop driverless cars, which were forbidden on many California streets. Now, after a campaign that included giving politicians test rides and suggesting driverless cars as a remedy for drunken driving, Google won 25 permits to test autonomous vehicles.
There have also been reports that Google is developing its own drone program, a possible foray into the delivery strategy Amazon is eyeing.
Facebook, led by founder Mark Zuckerberg, has become an increasingly vocal part of the debate over immigration reform. More than 15 percent of the company’s workers hold H-1B visas, which permit foreign workers to live inside the U.S. temporarily if they work in a specialist occupation. Other Facebook priorities include protecting freedom of expression online, Internet security education, privacy legislation and online advertising laws.
Playing Catch Up
Amazon has been less conspicuous, and consistent, when it comes to public policy.
First the company appeared indecisive on its support for the Marketplace Fairness Act, a bill that died in Congress before it would have forced e-commerce companies to collect sales tax from customers in each state where their products are sold. Amazon initially opposed the bill, pulling an about-face after realizing that, with brick-and-mortar warehouses in states throughout the U.S., it would be on the hook to collect taxes anyway. Amazon decided it might as well advocate for competitors like eBay to be forced to pay taxes, too.
Then the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules that grounded the plan to deliver packages by drone. More than a year after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced the company hopes to cut out the middleman and deliver its own packages, the FAA adopted regulations forcing drone pilots to operate their aircraft only within their line of sight.
Now, as Amazon expands into everything from bigger delivery plans to movie production, it’s certain to face resistance from more than just technology rivals.
“Business doesn’t like to be regulated but it loves to hire politicians,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “Amazon has a number of public policy issues they have to deal with and they’re looking for people who can get them into a room to meet with powerful officials. They want someone who has a feel for Washington, and companies realize there’s no one better for that than the people who have actually been there.”
Today’s tech giants are investing heavily outside their own roots in part because computers and software can now be found in virtually all consumer products – from toasters to automobiles. That makes almost everything a potential tech product. So it makes sense that, as lawmakers attempt to determine, say, how driverless cars will operate and whether delivery drones are legal, the companies that stand to profit off such ventures will want to influence policy from the inside.
Amazon has known for years that it wants to do more than push Barnes & Noble out of business. Between 2003 to 2014 it increased its lobby spending from $920,000 to $4.9 million, according to OpenSecrets.org. Google has also known it wants to be more than a search engine, and has increased its schmooze spending from $80,000 to $16.83 million over the same period.
Ongoing Turf Wars
That’s partly because Google has been locked in an ugly feud with Microsoft (which spent $10.49 million on lobbying in 2013) for years. They’ve fought over virtually every major technology issue over the past decade, everything from search results, patents, privacy policies and security measures. What both companies have in common, though, is that the people on the front lines of their ongoing war gained experience in the trenches of Washington politics.
The arms race has almost certainly contributed to Microsoft’s hire of Mark Penn, a former spin doctor for Hillary Clinton who now serves as chief strategy officer under CEO Satya Nadella. That came not long after Google brought on Susan Molinari, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, to work as a vice president for public policy. Sheryl Sandberg, meanwhile, worked at the U.S. Treasury Department before serving as Facebook’s chief operating officer.
Uber, in its quest to become more than a taxi service, caught on earlier this year by hiring Obama’s highly visible campaign manager, David Plouffe, to improve its corporate image. Since then Uber has refuted the claim that its drivers don’t earn a fair salary and released a later-disputed report that Uber’s presence in an area reduces the number of drunken drivers.
“The technology sector is becoming very entrenched with government policy,” Princeton's Zelizer said. “It’s not just a booming industry but one that has been consciously removed from politics and is now trying to strengthen its presence in Washington.”