Colorado Rep. Ken Buck helped start a GOP groundswell earlier this year when he pledged to refuse campaign donations from major tech companies — some of the deepest-pocketed corporate players in U.S. politics.
But that stance has enhanced his appeal with another group of big-spending political donors: the tech giants’ major antagonists and their lobbyists.
Buck, the top Republican on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, has raised tens of thousands of dollars from companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and Fox Corp. since June 2019, a POLITICO analysis of campaign finance disclosures shows. Buck has pushed for laws and rules that could boost the companies’ abilities to compete with the likes of Google and Facebook. His increasingly aggressive stance has also won him praise as a trailblazer among GOP trustbusters, part of a notable shift in his party’s attitudes toward reining in corporate monopolies.
The figures offer a reminder that the battle in Washington over the power of Silicon Valley’s reigning titans is hardly a one-sided affair when it comes to political spending. Instead, the debate in Congress about overhauling U.S. antitrust laws has inspired some complex corporate maneuvering behind the scenes, especially as money from “Big Tech” becomes increasingly toxic politically. And that has opened a path for politicians like Buck, a free-market conservative and member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Google, Facebook and Amazon are still some of the top spenders on federal lobbying and donors to political campaigns in the country, shelling out tens of millions of dollars per year while helping fund lobbying shops, law firms, nonprofits and think tanks to advocate their side. But corporate rivals, including tech competitors like Microsoft, Epic Games and the media conglomerates that vie with the online giants for ad dollars, are well-resourced too.
“One reason tech antitrust has attracted so much attention on the Hill is because the victims are not only small and medium-sized enterprises, workers and consumers — but also other large corporations,” said Sandeep Vaheesan, a legal director with anti-monopoly think tank Open Markets Institute. “Some of the victims of these monopolists have real lobbying power, the money to donate to political campaigns and [the ability to] support counter-narratives to challenge the hegemony of the big players in tech.”
Asked for comment on the donations from the major tech companies’ rivals, Buck’s campaign instead issued a statement criticizing this article.
“It’s not shocking that Politico (who is sponsored by Amazon, Google, and Facebook) would write a hit piece on Ken Buck,” said Buck communications director Alexa Vance, who specified that she was speaking in her capacity as his campaign spokesperson. “It is true that Rep. Buck’s campaign has received several thousands of dollars from conservative ‘anti-big tech’ companies. We hope they send more.”
Vance added that Politico since 2008 has received an “undisclosed amount of money in millions of dollars from Amazon, Google, and Facebook for sponsorships of many of Politico’s newsletters. That sounds an awful lot like a conflict of interest.”
POLITICO spokesperson Brad Dayspring responded that a “strong firewall” separates POLITICO’s business and news operations. “To put it simply, POLITICO’s sales team has no influence on editorial content and does not share client information with reporters and editors,” Dayspring said.
Buck has received over $50,000 from corporate rivals of the major tech companies and their lobbyists since the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee began its bipartisan investigation into the big tech companies in June 2019, according to a POLITICO analysis of the congressman’s filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The money, which amounts to about 12 percent of his haul overall for that period, includes donations from major tech companies Microsoft and Oracle; the smaller tech rival Yelp; AT&T, which has an advertising technology unit; the Murdoch-owned media companies News Corp. and Fox Corp.; and the News Media Alliance, a trade association representing major news publishers.
Buck was selected as the top Republican on the antitrust subcommittee earlier this year, and before that was highly involved in the investigation before it wrapped up in October.
The donations to Buck from the tech giants’ rivals exceed what either House antitrust subcommittee Chair David Cicilline (D-R.I.) or Utah Sen. Mike Lee, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, received from the same companies and their lobbyists during that same time. (Cicilline doesn’t accept corporate PAC donations and Lee until recently touted a skeptical attitude toward changes in antitrust law.)
During the House panel’s investigation in 2020, Buck garnered headlines for his escalating criticisms of the big tech companies, which he derided as abusive behemoths. “I think it’s clear there’s abuse in the marketplace and a need for action,” Buck said during a field hearing in his home state in January 2020.
In the end, Buck declined to sign onto the final 450-page antitrust report that Democrats published in October, which called for sweeping changes to U.S. antitrust law in order to pare back the power of the tech giants. But he published his own “Third-Way Report,” which agreed with the Democrats that the major tech companies are functioning as monopolists and using their unprecedented power to crush rivals and exploit consumers.
Buck’s report proposed less dramatic antitrust remedies than the Democrats had, saying his changes would roll back the big tech companies’ power while avoiding seismic changes in other parts of the economy.
Meanwhile, Buck was accepting an increasing stream of money from the companies’ most important corporate rivals. Since June 2019, for example, Buck has received $5,000 from News Corp., which publishes The Wall Street Journal and New York Post and whose executive chair, Rupert Murdoch, is a major antagonist of Google and Facebook as well as a top Republican ally.
Buck has also received $3,000 from Microsoft, a tech company with a $1.84 trillion market value that has been advocating against its major tech rivals on policy issues like how to treat news publishers and content moderation; $4,500 from the Murdochs’ Fox Corp.; $1,000 from Yelp, an online review site that has sustained a long-standing grudge against Google; $6,000 from AT&T, which has competed with Google and Facebook in the digital advertising market; and $3,000 from the PAC and lobbyists with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, an antitrust law firm that counts AT&T, Oracle, Salesforce and Yelp as clients.
Microsoft spokesperson Kate Frischmann said the company has been contributing to Buck since 2015, well before he became the antitrust subcommittee’s top Republican this year. “He’s been an important voice on immigration reform and intellectual property, among other issues,” Frischmann said. Microsoft — a former antitrust defendant itself — has also been in active talks with the antitrust subcommittee about the panel’s investigation into Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook.
Buck received another $2,500 from Oracle, the major cloud company that has garnered a reputation for lobbying however it can against the bigger tech companies, as well as an additional $1,000 from Oracle’s top lobbyist, Ken Glueck.
Additionally, Buck received a total of $6,000 from Joseph Gibson of The Gibson Group, a lobbying practice that counts eBay, Epic Games, Microsoft and Spotify as clients. Spotify and Epic Games have both sued Apple over its alleged antitrust violations, while eBay competes fiercely with Amazon as an online retailer.
The telecom industry, which has opposed the tech companies across a variety of policy areas including net neutrality, was Buck’s single largest bloc of contributors during the 2020 election cycle, according to an industry breakdown by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that researches political spending.
The pattern of donations offers a rhetorical lifeline to supporters of the top tech giants, allowing them to try to portray the anti-monopoly movement as a product of corporate influence peddling.
“If you scratch the surface of the supposed ‘techlash’, you’ll quickly find this kind of company-versus-company violence,” said Adam Kovacevich, a former Google executive and CEO of the tech association Chamber of Progress, which includes Google, Facebook and Amazon. “Unfortunately, consumer voices sometimes get drowned out by corporations trying to make trouble for their competitors or using regulation to improve their balance sheets.”
Buck’s allies — including a coalition of smaller tech companies, progressives and populist Republicans — point out that there’s a stark difference between accepting cash windfalls from companies valued at over $1.5 trillion like Amazon and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and corporations with a fraction of that value.
“For over a decade, Google has propped up shill groups like the Chamber of Progress and rewarded politicians with millions in campaign contributions as a way to sidestep enforcement actions against its abusive monopoly,” said Luther Lowe, Yelp’s senior vice president of public policy. “Congressman Buck is one of only a few courageous political leaders willing to take a stand against these trillion-dollar behemoths that seek to distort our democracy.”
Buck has received particularly significant contributions from news publishers, some of the most powerful rivals of the major tech companies, as he stakes out a position as a leading GOP co-sponsor of the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, H.R. 1735 (117) — legislation that would allow publishers to collectively bargain for better financial terms with Google and Facebook. In the first three months of 2021 alone, as he continued to push the legislation, Buck received a total of $6,500 from executives with the News Media Alliance, a trade association for news publishers, and the alliance’s lobbyists at the firm Williams & Jensen.
“Rep. Buck is doing something very difficult and important: figuring out conservative approaches to tech antitrust issues,” News Media Alliance President David Chavern, who gave $1,000 to Buck this past quarter, said in a statement to POLITICO. “He showed real leadership last year when he wrote ‘The Third Way’ in response to the House Antitrust Subcommittee report. Since then, he has shown a consistent willingness to be clear-eyed when it comes to the market impacts of platform monopolies, and we were happy to support him with our small contributions.”
On the other hand, the Colorado lawmaker has also received $500 apiece since March from three lobbyists who represent major tech companies: Frederick and Jennifer Baird from Off Hill Strategies, which counts Facebook as its biggest client, as well as Gina Foote from Finsbury Glover Hering, which represents Apple. That’s despite the pledge Buck made in April to swear off big tech money.
But the lobbyists’ contributions are not contradictory to his pledge, in which he said he would no longer accept donations directly from the corporate PACs or executives of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple and Twitter. His pledge did not mention multi-client lobbyists, which often have dozens of clients.
Ultimately, the wealthy tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have great power to push their agenda in Washington, as they seek to undercut policy proposals that would change how they do business. Those four major tech companies spent a combined $124 million in lobbying and campaign contributions during the 2020 election cycle, according to Public Citizen, dwarfing the efforts of companies like News Corp and Yelp.
“I think it’s easy to get distracted by the inter-corporate disputes and rivalries here,” said Vaheesan, whose group gets funding from foundations and doesn’t accept direct corporate donations. “The key point is, Facebook, Google and Amazon have become so powerful that they’re even squeezing other large corporations.”