Self-Preservation and Self-Interest in Big Tech’s Most Recent Lobbying Effort

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The lobbying group that represents big tech is targeting users in California’s capitol ahead of new consumer privacy bill

Last week in the Washington Post, Tony Romm reported that some curious ads were being targeted to users in California’s state capitol.

Ads on Facebook and Twitter claiming the free internet was “at risk” began appearing in the social media feeds of Sacramento users in August. The ads, which offer warnings such as “The FREE websites and apps you use every day could start costing you” and “Using the internet shouldn’t hurt your wallet,” link to an innocuously titled online campaign called Keep the Internet Free.

In small print at the bottom of the page appears the funding body of the campaign: the Internet Association, a lobbying group representing Big Tech companies, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

What’s with the ads?

The Internet Association ads and campaign efforts come ahead of the implementation of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), California’s historic internet privacy bill, which is set to take effect in January 2020. The new law will give the state’s residents the ability to see the data companies like Facebook and Google collect on them and block those companies from selling their information. The CCPA, which is roughly modeled on Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), will be the most thorough consumer privacy law in the U.S. to date, and it is widely thought that other state lawmakers will follow California’s lead.

According to Romm, the ads funded by the Internet Association have reached hundreds of thousands of users, all in Sacramento. According the state records, the campaign is the most expensive effort the Internet Commission has spent on lobbying in Sacramento.

Many believe the purpose of the Internet Association’s Keep the Internet Free campaign center around maintaining the ability of Big Tech companies to target users with advertising. The narrative that the law undermines a free internet is seen by civil liberties groups such as the ACLU as an attempt by tech companies who rely on advertising to weaken the law in the months ahead of its rollout.

The lobbying efforts of Big Tech have risen exponentially in the past several years, with tech companies now outspending Wall Street by a margin of 2:1. In 2018, Google spent just under $22 million on lobbying, while Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple spent $12.6 million, $14.4 million, $9.6 million, and $6.6 million, respectively.

While the lobbying presence of tech in Washington has grown alongside its many ethically ambiguous practices, such as targeted advertising, this is the first time the two have intersected in such a public display of obvious self-interest. We can now add the ethics of targeting lawmakers on social media to the very long list of morally questionable practices employed by Big Tech.

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