Tech giant Apple last week told Politico it would withhold support for the Republican National Convention due to comments made by Donald Trump. Apple competitors Google and Facebook are still supporters though, with Google providing the official live stream, and Facebook providing “financial and other” support.
Generally, all of the technology giants have been ramping up their US political activity to unprecedented levels, a significant shift in strategy from a decade ago when these firms deliberately avoided Washington.
From political campaign contributions to snapping up former White House staffers, this step-up in activity has the potential to influence public policy in a problematic way. That’s because, while technology companies have embraced Washington, not all have embraced political disclosure.
Apple doesn’t have a political action committee, but it does disclose its public policy advocacy. Some of its tech giant competitors have been less than transparent.
Google ranks poorly on political disclosure
Exhibit A is Google. The Center for Political Accountability ranks it in the fourth tier, among the lowest among S&P 500 companies, of the 2015 CPA-Zicklin Index of Corporate Political Disclosure and Accountability. In contrast, Apple ranks in the second tier and is substantially more transparent than Google.
Google’s parent company Alphabet is now battling with Apple to become the world’s largest company by market capitalisation. Investors want to know how Google will continue to achieve growth, and consumers and the public are concerned about how this corporate giant will wield its influence.
Google has built significant relationships with the US government – directly through the revolving door of personnel, traditional lobbying, political contributions; and indirectly through trade associations and other advocacy groups. The lack of transparency, especially for a company that specialises in information, is problematic. Google’s very calculated strategy has bought out new critics, including some shareholders. Given the climate Google operates in most people would expect transparency, and instead Google has chosen opacity, which is troubling.
Beyond simply buying influence, there is the proverbial revolving door. The revolving door is movement of personnel between the government and private companies. Some worry the revolving door creates a quid pro quo type of benefit. Google has perfected the revolving door, as documented by the Google Transparency Project. It reports 251 moves between Google and government-related activities since 2009. In contrast, Apple only has 31 such moves.
Several key examples of former government staffers moving into important roles at Google have emerged. Susan Molinari, a former four-term Republican Congresswoman from New York, has led Google’s Washington DC office since 2012. Johanna Shelton, who has had two stints as a staffer in the House of Representatives, is Google’s director of public policy and has visited the White House more than any other corporate lobbyist. Megan Smith left Google in 2014 to assist President Obama as the US chief technology officer.
The short road to influence
Prior to 2007, Google didn’t lobby. But in 2014, the Washington Post declared Google a master of Washington influence. The Center for Responsive Politics quantifies the rapid growth in Google’s lobbying.
Authors: John Barrick, Associate Professor of Accountancy, Brigham Young University