WASHINGTON (Circa) — In the past decade, America's internet giants have migrated from the fringes of politics to the center of influence in Washington, contributing millions to political campaigns and building an aggressive army of lobbyists.
As these companies' influence in politics continues to grow, they have faced criticism from President Donald Trump who spent the past few days attacking Google, one of the best-represented tech interests in Washington, for alleged political bias.
Beginning Tuesday, Trump took aim at Google first claiming the company's search engine was "RIGGED" and only promoting critical news coverage of him. Trump then suggested he will launch an investigation of Google for "suppressing" conservative voices and warned Facebook and Twitter could face similar treatment.
"I think they treat conservatives and Republicans very unfairly," Trump told reporters at the White House. "They're really trying to silence a very large part of this country. And those people don't want to be silenced. It's not right. It's not fair. It may not be legal. But we'll see. We just want fairness."
Google responded to the president's factually dubious claims explaining that the company's search engine is "not used to set a political agenda" or reflect ideological bias, adding "we never rank search results to manipulate political sentiment."
By Wednesday, the president escalated, tweeting a time-lapse video claiming to show Google gave favorable treatment to President Barack Obama by promoting his State of the Union addresses on their home page, but not Trump's addresses to Congress in 2017 and 2018.
The president's claims about his State of the Union address were debunked using The Way Back Machine, which showed Google did, in fact, promote Trump's first State of the Union address in 2018. Google said it does not traditionally promote the president's first address to Congress.
Given their financial power, growing presence in Washington and the potential to tap into hundreds of millions of U.S. users, by all measures, Trump appears to have chosen a dangerous enemy.
After working to discredit the traditional news media, casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community and Justice Department, it was "only a matter of time" before President Trump turned on Google, Facebook and Twitter, said Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow and technology expert at the Cato Institute.
"He very much enjoys being a uniquely trusted source of information and appears to want to discredit any authority or any source of information that is at odds with that," he noted. "In a way, it's a dangerous game."
President Trump signaled with his recent attacks that he may be looking for a head-on fight with the tech titans over regulation, a possible antitrust investigation, or even using the power of the government to alter how they present content to users.
"In part, it's a 'gaming the refs' approach with a hope that if these companies can be spooked, they will voluntarily tweak their algorithms to placate the president and his supporters by highlighting more conservative news stories," Sanchez noted.
"I doubt that will be successful," he continued, noting most companies would regard it as "semi-sacrilegious" to alter search results in response to political pressure.
If Trump's threats are serious and not an attempt to rally support from his political base, the president will have to contend with the massive political infrastructure the country's top internet companies have been building over the past decade.
Undeniably, internet giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter have expanded their presence in Washington. Wealthy executives, political action committees (PACs) and individuals have donated millions to candidates and the companies have deployed teams of lobbyists to press the White House and Congress on issues from net neutrality and data privacy to immigration and taxes.
Political campaign contributions from these companies have increased more than four-fold from $8.2 million in the 2008 campaign to more than $35 million in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP). The industry has also beefed up lobbying efforts which topped $68.5 million in 2017 up from a mere $15.2 million in 2008.
Based on their analysis, CRP concludes two things about big tech's lobbying efforts, "It favors Democrats and its political spending has shot up. Fast."
Overwhelmingly, Democrats were on the receiving end of the contributions from individuals, political action committees (PACs) and outside money, getting 79 percent of the total. The finding is not necessarily surprising. The majority of the companies are based in safe Democratic districts around the San Francisco Bay area. Many employees are typically younger and college-educated, demographics that typically do not support Trump.
At the corporate level, representatives from the industry's top influencers denied their lobbying efforts or corporate campaign donations were weighted in favor of one political party or ideology.
According to official filings, Google's NetPAC contributions have been split generally evenly between Republican and Democratic candidates and campaign committees. A spokesperson noted that no matter how the numbers are sliced, NetPAC spending reflects a fairly equal distribution.
In terms of lobbying efforts, Google spent $18 million in 2017, more than any other single company. Those efforts, again, generally crossed party lines on issues pertaining to the company's interests, rather than a partisan agenda.
A Facebook representative also told Circa that its political action committee's contributions to political candidates in 2016, roughly $650,000, were generally split "50/50" between Republicans and Democrats.
From the standpoint of the companies, political interests are almost always secondary to financial interests and economic interests. That hardly suggests the internet giants are politically benevolent.
To a large extent, the tech industry has generally refrained from throwing its sizable political weight into partisan political fights. That has changed somewhat during the Trump administration.
When the president announced his first travel ban, Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter and a host of other tech firms spoke out, many citing the fact that their companies were built by immigrants.
The response was similar to Trump's decision to repeal DACA protections for undocumented minors and even more vehement when the Trump administration implemented its "zero tolerance" immigration policy, resulting in thousands of family separations.
Silicon Valley also rallied massive opposition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repeal of net neutrality rules, in an ultimately unsuccessful fight.
It can be argued whether their positions in these fights were based on corporate interests or the positions of typically left-leaning executives, like Google's Sergey Brin, Twitter's Jack Dorsey or Facebook's COO Sheryl Sandberg, who contributed millions exclusively to Democratic presidential campaigns.
Sanchez expects that if companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and others feel their interests, as companies are directly threatened by the president's policies, they could prove to be a menacing political force to be reckoned with.
"The most sophisticated political campaign in the world doesn't have the kind of get out the vote infrastructure that Facebook and Google already have latent in their infrastructure," he noted.
If they chose to use that infrastructure towards a political agenda, they have a powerful set of tools. Most telling was Google's role in the 2012 fight over legislation to stop online piracy and protect copyrighted materials like music and movies, the SOPA and PIPA acts. The campaign included a coordinated internet blackout and a Google homepage warning that Congress was going to censor the internet resulting in a fierce public backlash and Congress abandoning its effort.
"It's an interesting preview of what these companies could do," Sanchez said. "And maybe a preview of what they might be motivated to do if they feel they and the freedom of the internet are being attacked again."