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Google, Facebook set 2018 lobbying records as tech scrutiny intensifies

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Alphabet Inc's Google unit spent more than US$21 million to influence Washington, according to federal disclosures, in a year when its chief executive officer, Sundar Pichai, made his first appearance before Congress.

[WASHINGTON] Google, Amazon.com Inc and Facebook Inc set company records for lobbying spending in 2018 as Washington's scrutiny of Big Tech intensified.

Alphabet Inc's Google unit spent more than US$21 million to influence Washington, according to federal disclosures, in a year when its chief executive officer, Sundar Pichai, made his first appearance before Congress. The search giant, which spent US$4.9 million in the last three months of the year, according to a Tuesday filing, beat its previous record of more than US$18 million from 2017.

Amazon.com Inc reported spending US$3.7 million in the fourth quarter, bringing its total to US$14.2 million for the year, more than the record US$12.8 million the company spent in 2017.

Although the online retailer has faced less ire in Washington than Facebook and Google, it's had its share of criticism, including allegations by Trump that it doesn't pay its fair share of US Postal Service costs to deliver its packages.

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Facebook spent nearly US$13 million on lobbying, the filings say, as it dealt with the fallout from privacy scandals, the congressional testimony of its chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, and data vulnerabilities. It spent US$2.83 million during the quarter. In 2017, Facebook spent more than US$11.5 million on lobbying, the previous record.

When including spending by Microsoft (US$9.5 million) and Apple (US$6.6 million), the industry's Big Five shelled out US$64.3 million to fight numerous legislative and policy battles in 2018. The companies had good reason to up their influence game: They face a so-called techlash of greater congressional and regulatory scrutiny after repeated privacy breaches and disclosures that Russia used social media platforms to distribute propaganda meant to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Industry critics also say some tech companies have grown too big and too powerful, leading to suggestions by politicians and organizations, on the left and the right, that the companies be broken up.

Google usually leads the tech sector in lobbying outlays and often is among the top-spending companies overall in Washington. Mr Pichai was called to testify before a congressional committee in December to answer allegations that the company's search and news algorithms are biased against conservative opinions, a view President Donald Trump has echoed.

Mr Pichai also faced questions about privacy, antitrust and the company's possible use of a censored search engine to gain access to the Chinese market.

The company's global policy chief, Karan Bhatia, who joined Google in June, is considering a shakeup of the Washington lobbying shop amid the backlash. He is said to have circulated an organizational chart with blank boxes for all the positions reporting to him. Google's longtime Washington director, former Representative Susan Molinari, a New York Republican, resigned at the end of 2018, although she remains in an advisory role.

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