Big Tech lobbying spending fell during the pandemic, but TikTok's Chinese parent company ramped up

Key Points
  • Most tech giants scaled back their U.S. lobbying spending in the second quarter as the coronavirus pandemic created economic uncertainty.
  • Amazon and Microsoft were the only two Big Tech firms to scale up their spending during the quarter, while Apple, Facebook and Google scaled down.
  • TikTok's parent company ramped up spending during the pandemic as U.S. officials considered banning the app over national security concerns.
Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google LLC, arrives to the White House for a meeting in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Three Big Tech companies scaled back their U.S. lobbying spending in the second quarter as the coronavirus pandemic created economic uncertainty.

The Chinese company that owns the social networking app TikTok, however, increased its lobbying spending by more than 66% as TikTok faced increased scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers over concerns about whether it shares user data with the Chinese government. Still, TikTok owner ByteDance's overall lobbying spending was far less than the largest tech companies.

Here's the breakdown of Big Tech lobbying spend in the second quarter: 

Combined lobbying spending for the five tech giants fell 4% to $15.3 million.

Amazon and Microsoft were the only Big Tech firms to scale up their lobbying spending during the April 1 to June 30 period. Amazon's $4.4 million spend marked a new quarterly record for the company, surpassing its previous record set during the first quarter of 2020. Amazon lobbied on issues including data protection, encryption, price gouging during the pandemic, cloud computing, Covid-19 testing and more.

Microsoft also lobbied on a variety of issues, including the EARN IT Act, which would tie Section 230 immunity for tech platforms to compliance with best practices for detecting and reporting child exploitation materials. The bill has raised concerns, however, that it could undermine encryption.

Microsoft also lobbied on cloud computing policy issues, facial recognition and competitiveness in the tech sector. The company recently said it would stop selling facial recognition technology until Congress passed a law regulating it that is "grounded in human rights."

Microsoft is also the only company of the group that is not thought to be under active antitrust scrutiny. It faced an antitrust lawsuit around the turn of the century. Attention has since shifted to Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google for their competitive practices. The CEOs of those four companies are set to testify before a House panel on Monday. Apple, Facebook and Google have lowered their lobbying spending for the quarter, though they continued to lobby on a variety of issues.

Google lobbied on online advertising regulation in the quarter as well as competition and privacy concerns in that sector. It also lobbied on data privacy and connected education as students increasingly relied on its platforms during virtual schooling.

Apple similarly lobbied on student privacy issues as well as government requests for data. Apple has been engaged in an ongoing argument with law enforcement officials about its reluctance to provide a "back door" to its encrypted devices in criminal investigations.

Facebook lobbied on the Honest Ads Act, which would modernize political advertising regulations to cover online platforms. It also discussed election security and Section 230, including the EARN IT Act.

TikTok's parent company ramps up spending

ByteDance, which owns the popular video app TikTok, ramped up spending during the pandemic as government officials considered banning the app over national security concerns. The company spent $500,000 on lobbying in the quarter, up from $300,000 in Q1, a 66.7% jump. The company spent just $270,000 on lobbying in all of 2019.

This quarter, ByteDance lobbied generally on "issues related to internet technology and learning-enabled content platforms" as well as a House bill that would ban TikTok from being installed on Transportation Security Administration workers' government-issued phones.

Congress has increasingly sought to ban the app for other government workers, fearing Chinese officials could compel the company to hand over data on U.S. users, a claim TikTok's former leader has denied. On Monday, the House passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would ban it from government phones. A Senate committee is set to vote on a similar provision later this week. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has threatened to crack down on the company as well, possibly by unwinding ByteDance's acquisition of TikTok precursor

Lyft's biggest spending quarter

Lyft had its biggest spending quarter ever during the pandemic, investing $530,000 in lobbying during Q2. Lyft's previous quarterly spending high was $240,000 in the first quarter of 2019, according to public filings. The company brought on three new lobbying firms in the quarter and lobbied on issues including labor and benefits for independent contractors. 

Lyft and Uber are the subjects of a lawsuit by the California state attorney general and city attorneys from three California cities over their classification of drivers as contractors. The lawsuit argues that the companies have denied workers benefits by misclassifying them. Uber in particular has been vocal about its desire to create a new classification that could allow for protection and flexibility for gig workers while maintaining standard benefits.

Uber spent slightly more than Lyft in the second quarter at $570,000, though the spending represented a 9.5% decline from its previous quarter. Uber similarly lobbied on labor issues and issues related to the pandemic.

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