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Web giants spent record amounts on lobbying amid growing regulatory scrutiny

As large tech platforms faced increasing scrutiny and calls for regulation in 2018, these companies spent record amounts of money on lobbying, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org website.

Several major social media and online advertising giants found themselves mired in multiple privacy and consumer protection scandals in 2018, leading to calls from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle for more transparency around political advertisements and data collection policies. Now, lobbyist disclosure filings suggest the scrutiny resulted in edge providers such as Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC and Facebook Inc. spending to limit the regulatory backlash.

Internet sector lobbying spending hit a record high of $76.7 million in 2018, according to the OpenSecrets data, which was sourced from the Senate Office of Public Records. Total lobbying spending for the sector was up 12.2% from 2017 and 59.4% from 2014.

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A big chunk of that spending came from the companies facing the most criticism, with Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon.com Inc. being the top three lobbying spenders in the internet sector in 2018.

While the companies have been the top three spenders in the sector dating back to 2013, each of the three companies spent record amounts of money on lobbying in 2018. The companies spent a combined $48.2 million, making up 62.9% of all lobbying money spent by the sector for the year.

Alphabet spent the most in the sector with $21.2 million, Amazon was second with $14.4 million and Facebook was third with $12.6 million.

One of the top issues for Alphabet was privacy. The company was behind over 20 lobbying expenditure filings related to the issue, with a number of filings for a bill known as the Email Privacy Act. The bill sought to require all government agencies to first get a warrant to search Americans' online communications, regardless of whether it is stored on a third-party server.

The Internet Association — a trade group representing edge providers such as Facebook, Google and Amazon — supported the bill, with association President and CEO Michael Beckerman saying it would extend "important privacy safeguards to electronically stored content online."

The bill passed the House of Representatives in the previous Congress, which ended in January 2019, but failed to become law.

The company also spent lobbying money on advocacy for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet platforms from civil and state criminal prosecution for content created and posted by users.

Some Republican members of Congress have suggested that regulatory reform to the law may be necessary after citing instances of perceived bias against conservative viewpoints. An Alphabet executive testified in July 2018 in favor of preserving the law.

If the law were to be changed to make social media platforms liable, it would drastically change the way social media companies publish content.

The company also focused on bills related to autonomous vehicles.

One area of focus for Facebook, meanwhile, was political advertising and a bill called the Honest Ads Act, which would make paid internet and digital advertisements subject to the same regulations as political TV and radio ads.

Facebook supported the bill, but it did not pass in either chamber in the last Congress.

The company was also behind a number of filings on privacy-related issues, including a privacy bill known as the BROWSER Act. The bill would have given the U.S. Federal Trade Commission authority to enforce privacy protections requiring broadband providers, search engines, mobile applications and other online players to obtain opt-in consent before using sensitive customer information.

NetChoice, an online commerce trade group representing Facebook, argued that the bill would erase $340 billion in advertising revenue from American websites.

The bill did not come up for a vote in the last Congress.

While Alphabet and Facebook focused on bills related to online advertising and privacy, two major topics for the Amazon were bills related to online music streaming and state and local taxes on online platforms.

In particular, of all bills it lobbied on in 2018, Amazon gave the most focus to the Music Modernization Act of 2017, which proposed reforms to the music licensing landscape. While the bill did not pass, the text was included in a broader music modernization bill that did become law.

That bill included provisions to update copyright law for more streamlined digital music licensing and established a system to speed up licensing and payment for copyrighted musical works, among other provisions.