Peter M. Gunn on Monday, Aug. 27th
On September 19, a great act of hypocrisy shall take shape. Last month, The National Journal reported the formation of a new Voltron-esque trade group called The Internet Association, which claims it will be “the unified voice of the Internet economy,” dedicated to “advancing public policy solutions to strengthen and protect an open, innovative and free Internet.”
Just exactly which companies belong to the Internet Association will remain unknown until it officially launches, but already word has slipped about the four main founding companies, which are Google, Facebook, eBay, and Amazon. Indeed, these four have come together to lobby Washington to for a free and open Internet for the people. Hmmm.
Borne out of the fight against SOPA/PIPA, The Internet Association bathes itself in the rhetoric of net neutrality and Internet freedom advocates. In classic Congressional revolving door style, the Internet Association announced former U.S. House and Energy Committee Deputy Staff Director Michael Beckerman as its President and CEO. In the press release, Beckerman said that “the Internet’s decentralized and open model is what has enabled its unprecedented growth and innovation. We must guard against misguided attempts to handcuff this incredible source of job creation, freedom and creativity.”
The Internet Association was formed because “The Internet must have a voice in Washington.” However, considering that these days money is speech, all four of these companies have a pretty substantial voice among legislators already. Witness:
- In 2011 and 2012 (still with two quarters to go), Google has spent almost $10 million on lobbying each year.
- Facebook spent an additional $1 million on lobbying from 2010 to 2011 and already has outpaced its 2011 total this year.
- Ebay has spent over $1.5 million on lobbying each year from 2006 to 2011, topping out at over $3 million in 2006.
- Similarly, Amazon has spent over $1 million on lobbying each year from 2006 to 2011, including having spent over $2 million in 2009 and 2010.
For comparison’s sake, Google’s lobbying expenditures for 2011 are only $1.5 million behind the tobacco company Altria and $3 million behind ExxonMobil, two of the most influential companies in Washington. There appears to be no indication that current lobbying expenditures will decrease. Instead, the Internet Association appears to be just a consolidation effort for specific issues, a practice that is par for the course.
For example, apparently the tens of millions of dollars that ExxonMobil has spent on lobbying in each of the past three years has not been enough. ExxonMobil is also a member of the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group for the oil and gas industry that has spent an additional $7 million on lobbying each year from 2009 to 2011. In its previous life as Philip Morris, Altria was a key member of the trade group The Tobacco Institute, also known as the trade group parodied in the book and film Thank You For Smoking.
In fact, The Internet Association is not even the first trade group for Facebook and eBay, who are members of NetChoice, “a coalition of trade associations, eCommerce businesses, and online consumers,” though that group’s lobbying efforts have been less than substantial so far.
Just what form the lobbying will take, we can infer somewhat by the lobbying these companies have done in the past.
Both eBay and Amazon have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying over such bills as the Streamlined Sales Tax Project, the Marketplace Equity Act, and the Mainstreet Fairness Act, all in an attempt to avoid having to charge sales tax for their products, perhaps offering a different interpretation of the word “free” as it pertains to the Internet. The lack of sales tax is one of the biggest competitive advantages of Internet retail businesses. Though recently, Amazon has conceded on the issue of sales tax in exchange for the opening of more exploitative distribution centers. The failure of such efforts perhaps demonstrates the need for The Internet Association.
All four of the companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying over privacy regulations and rules about user data. Facebook and Google’s struggles over the issues of privacy and data have been well documented, but even Amazon has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying over data retention, and eBay over behavioral tracking. Oddly enough, though they all spent a decent amount lobbying over CISPA, none of those companies have come out against it.
Perhaps equally as notable about The Internet Association though, is who’s missing in this “unified voice of the Internet economy.” The names of more companies are sure to surface after the lobby goes live, but there are still some glaring omissions. Leaving aside tech plesiosaurs Microsoft and Apple, who aren’t dead-set on raging against the series of tubes model, where are Twitter and Yahoo? Or Netflix, Zynga, AOL, or Reddit, or InterActiveCorp (this has been your weekly “that corporation owns WHAT?” moment). I mean, if eBay gets an invite to the party…
With the possible exception of IAC, though, none of those companies are currently that megalomaniacal. Those companies aren’t constantly trying to expand across platforms, or create new platforms, or position themselves as conduits for literally all of your Internet activity. Though companies like Twitter and Netflix have also lobbied for net neutrality, those companies don’t stand to lose that much by being relegated to the status of a tube, while the Internet Association companies are each striving (except for eBay, clearly the Ringo) to be the series of tubes themselves.
The Internet Association is an uneasy alliance to be sure. Google is competing with Amazon over digital music sales, and with Facebook over social networking. Amazon has its own auction system. Google’s chief objection to SOPA is that it would have to police the Internet, which is unfair because it doesn’t own the Internet… yet. Don’t forget that Google-owned YouTube once viewed copyright infringement as central to its growth.
The Internet Association claims to represent their community of users as well as the companies, and indeed there are some ancillary benefits for those people that are not corporations from maintaining the dumping ground model of the Internet, such as increased freedom of expression. However, the point of The Internet Association is to prevent any outside authority from putting up the metaphorical barbed wire that would signal the end of the open range.
This fight is not out of some populist concern; it’s because each of these companies believe that the entire West belongs to them.