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The relationship between big tech and Washington has sunk to a new low. Congress, the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are getting closer to investigating the biggest tech companies, and those companies are paying to protect themselves. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Washington is talking about the big four tech firms - Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google - but not in ways they appreciate. Here's Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on NPR's MORNING EDITION recently.
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ELIZABETH WARREN: It's about the concentration of wealth and what that does in a marketplace. But it's also about concentration of power - economic power and political power.
OVERBY: Up until a decade ago, big tech thought it didn't have to deal with Washington politics. That changed, and last year, the big four firms spent $55 million on lobbying. It marked a sevenfold increase over 10 years, a decade when lobbying spending overall stayed essentially flat.
LISA GILBERT: It puts them, you know, basically on par with some of the big players that we've long known about - you know, the banking industry, the car industry.
OVERBY: Lisa Gilbert is with the watchdog group Public Citizen. She was citing data from the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign and lobbying money. The four tech firms - again, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google - this year reported hiring 70 different lobby shops. They also pay lawyers, so-called strategic consultants and others who are not legally lobbyists and so don't get disclosed. And as Gilbert notes, big tech contributions flow through the governing infrastructure in Washington.
GILBERT: It's really hard to turn a corner in D.C. without running into some Google money. Both Google and Facebook have funded hundreds of think tanks and influential trade associations.
OVERBY: Congress and big tech have collided before. In 2012, anti-piracy bills in the House and Senate would have allowed for regulation of website content. Industry-led protests culminated in an Internet blackout and sank the legislation. Then last year, big tech was in trouble over failures to protect users' personal data. Congress held hearings, which accentuated how little the lawmakers knew about the Internet. Here's Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana questioning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
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JOHN KENNEDY: Are you willing to go back and work on giving me a greater right to erase my data?
MARK ZUCKERBERG: Senator, you can already delete any of the data that's there or delete all of your data.
KENNEDY: Are you going to expand that - work on expanding that?
ZUCKERBERG: Senator, I think we already do what you're referring to.
OVERBY: Besides Congress, the Justice Department and the FTC are also looking at big tech. The Senate Judiciary Committee has an antitrust hearing this month, and House judiciary has begun a series of hearings. Democratic Congressman David Cicilline chaired the first one.
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DAVID CICILLINE: This is the first significant antitrust investigation undertaken by Congress in decades.
OVERBY: Antitrust is serious stuff. If the government thinks the tech giants are competing unfairly, the companies could even be broken up. Neil Chilson is senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute.
NEIL CHILSON: There's a lot of things that are kind of coming together right now to make this a bigger issue than it has been in the past.
OVERBY: One of those things is politics. Internet industry donors have given at least 60% of their money to Democrats every election since 2004; that's according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Chilson said that now...
CHILSON: I think they're finding out that that was maybe not the best approach.
OVERBY: Tech firms are looking for allies among Republicans and Libertarians, who are more likely to oppose government intervention. At the same time, some Republicans have muted their allegations of social media bias. But among tech companies, there's also a hunt for compromise. As attorney Mitch Stoltz at the Electronic Frontier Foundation put it...
MITCH STOLTZ: Trying to steer the government towards solutions that maybe they don't love, but that they can't deal with.
OVERBY: One possibility is a privacy bill, something that would protect the personal data collected by social media companies.
NICOLE WONG: A good portion of industry is for a broad and comprehensive, federal-level privacy bill.
OVERBY: Nicole Wong is a former executive at Twitter and Google. She was also deputy chief technology officer in the Obama White House.
WONG: There's a point where law and regulation comes into play; the tech community is now facing that moment. We are here (laughter) where the law comes in.
OVERBY: Millions of dollars are being spent to control what that law will say.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.