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Google set 2018 lobbying record as Washington tech backlash expands

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Google and Facebook Inc set company records for annual lobbying spending in 2018 as Washington's scrutiny of Big Tech intensified.

[WASHINGTON] Google and Facebook Inc set company records for annual 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.

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.

The industry had good reason to up its influence game last year: It faces a so-called techlash of greater congressional and regulatory scrutiny after numerous privacy breaches and disclosures that Russia used social media platforms to distribute propaganda meant to influence the 2016 presidential election.

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Some industry critics also say it has grown too big and too powerful, leading to suggestions by politicians and organisations, on the left and the right, that the companies should 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 US 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 organisational chart with blank boxes for all the positions reporting to him. Google's long-time Washington director, former representative Susan Molinari, a New York Republican, resigned at the end of 2018, although she remains in an advisory role.

Ms Bhatia's challenges include responding to possible US antitrust scrutiny, tough new privacy rules in California, a bipartisan congressional push for a new law to protect consumer privacy and attempts to make tech companies responsible for the content disseminated by their services.

Google said it lobbied on dozens of issues, reflecting how integral its services have become to American lives and commerce. The filing cited privacy, data security, antitrust, taxes, tariffs, trade, the opioid crisis, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles, immigration, the future of work, encryption and national security.

Facebook's Washington office also has undergone a shakeup, including the firing in November of a Republican public-affairs firm. It had distributed information on financial ties between the company's critics and prominent Jewish philanthropist George Soros, which some Soros aides interpreted as an anti-Semitic attack.

In April, soon after a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that acquired the data of millions of Facebook users without their consent, Mr Zuckerberg endured a marathon grilling before congressional committees.

That month, the social-media giant tapped Kevin Martin, a Republican and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to head its Washington operations. The company has faced calls to oust other top executives, and is in the midst of a Federal Trade Commission inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica matter.

The company's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, also testified before Congress in September, and in October, the company hired Britain's former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, to run its global lobbying efforts.

In the fourth quarter, Facebook lobbied on issues including cybersecurity, privacy, government surveillance and immigration, according to the filings.

The Internet Association, a trade group that represents companies including Google and Facebook, spent US$840,000 in lobbying in the fourth quarter, a group record, according to the filings.

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