Google, Facebook will testify to lawmakers they’ve splashed with cash – Politico
When Google and Facebook testify before Congress on Russian election interference this week, they’ll face committees filled with lawmakers who have collectively received hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations from the companies.
Since 2009, Google and its employees have contributed to all but three of the 55 lawmakers who now sit on the Senate Judiciary, Senate Intelligence and House Intelligence committees, which are all holding hearings this week on Russian online disinformation, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Facebook and its employees gave to 40 of those lawmakers, the data show.
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The widespread giving to members of both parties is part of the industry’s broader effort to gain a greater voice in Washington policy debates in recent years. Those relationships may now prove helpful as Google and Facebook, along with Twitter, confront the biggest political crisis in Silicon Valley’s history. Company executives will be grilled this week about how Russia manipulated their platforms to influence last year’s election — and what steps they are taking to prevent future meddling.
“Russian interference in U.S. elections requires the undivided attention of lawmakers, despite the ubiquitous fundraising that comes with running for re-election,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government transparency group. “When lawmakers oversee or regulate their donors, this represents, at minimum, a complication in their incentives.”
The donations, totaling $1.6 million, are mere pocket change for the multibillion-dollar internet companies, but they highlight how the industry has become a growing source of funding for the political class.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a vocal tech industry advocate, raised the most funds from the trio of internet companies, pulling in $124,625 from the firms and their employees. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who represents the industry’s Silicon Valley base, raised $118,906, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) raised $98,293. All three serve on the Intelligence Committee.
Wyden’s office said the contributions won’t affect the senator’s push for the tech industry to take responsibility for protecting the integrity of U.S. elections.
“Sen. Wyden has long stood for the principle that digital innovation, at its inception, could best flourish free of invasive regulations mean to benefit established special interests,” said Keith Chu, a spokesman for the senator. “Today, however, it is clear the major digital platforms have a unique, urgent duty to police their platforms against misuses by actors hostile to U.S. interests, or attacks against core American values.”
Harris, who pursued privacy and consumer-protection cases against tech companies as a state law enforcement official, “continues to be an advocate for those values in the Senate, no matter the company or the industry,” her press secretary Tyrone Gayle said in a statement. Matt Wolking, a spokesman for Rubio, said: “When people choose to support Senator Rubio, they buy into his agenda, not the other way around.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is slated to hold a hearing Tuesday on both terrorist and Russian use of social media, featuring the general counsels of Facebook and Twitter and a security official from Google. On Wednesday, the Senate and House Intelligence committees will hold back-to-back hearings on Russian election meddling with the top lawyers from all three companies scheduled to testify.
The hearings mark the first time the tech companies will face questions in a public forum about their role facilitating “fake news” and Russian efforts to sow racial and social discord during the 2016 race. Much of the attention so far has focused on Russian-linked online political ads, but lawmakers have signaled they’re planning to press the companies on a broader array of nefarious activities that occurred on their platforms.
Amid increasing congressional talk of regulating online political ads, Facebook and Twitter took preemptive steps last week to show they’re capable of self-policing, unveiling a slate of new rules that require political advertisers to disclose more information about their campaigns and their targeted audience. The companies also provided new information about the extent of Russian activity on their platforms.
Google’s political action committee and employees contributed the most of the three companies, shelling out $1.09 million to the committee members since 2009. Facebook and its people donated more than $502,855 to the lawmakers over the same period. Twitter and its employees were less active on the contribution front, donating $11,829 to eight members of the committees.
Google spokeswoman Riva Sciuto declined to comment on Google’s PAC contributions, but said employees are free to make political contributions, adding they don’t necessarily represent the views of the company. Facebook pointed to their published giving guidelines and did not comment further. Twitter declined to comment.
Much of the company money flowed to senators. Members of the Senate Judiciary panel, which oversees a number of tech policy matters, captured $741,969 in contributions. Senate Intelligence was close behind with $710,542, while members of House Intelligence scored $262,111. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) serve on both Senate panels.
Compared to more established industries like energy, banking or pharmaceuticals, Google and Facebook are relative newcomers to Washington’s giving game. Google first established a political action committee in 2006, with Facebook following in 2011 and Twitter in 2013. Since then, however, they’ve ramped up their giving each election cycle, spreading contributions across both chambers of Congress and both parties.
The Center for Responsive Politics data dates from 2009 through mid-October of this year, and includes contributions from company employees and PACs to candidates’ campaigns and leadership PACs.