By Donald Shaw and David Moore, Sludge
During her two years as chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan has racked up many critics among mega corporations. She’s been busy advancing a rule banning non-compete clauses, a rule that would make it easier for people to cancel subscriptions, and launching lawsuits against Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook that go after what she sees as the anti-competitive practices of these businesses.
The heads of Big Tech companies and their allies in the media are not happy about it. According to the anti-monopoly group American Economic Liberties Project, the Wall Street Journal has published at least 69 op-eds, editorials, or letters criticizing Khan.
On July 13, House Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are holding a hearing with Khan where they are expected to attack her over the FTC’s ongoing investigation into billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and the “Twitter Files” journalists who he granted access to internal company documents, among other things.
Big Tech companies like Alphabet and Meta fund many of the conservative advocacy groups that have been going after Khan, including the American Action Forum, Cato Institute, and the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. The companies have also been funding some of Khan’s biggest critics on the Judiciary Committee. We examined the campaign contributions from Big Tech companies, and found that Republicans on the panel have received at least $400,000 from the PACs and employees of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, and Microsoft, and that at least 11 of them have received donations directly from the companies’ lobbyists or executives.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) has been targeting Khan for months. In April, Jordan subpoenaed the FTC for documents related to the agency’s actions in response to Musk’s Twitter takeover. In March, the Judiciary Committee and its Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, which Jordan also chairs, published a report that accuses the FTC of having political motivations behind its Twitter investigation.
Over the course of his career, Jordan has received at least $76,000 from employees and PACs of the five Big Tech companies, including $38,000 that came from the PAC of Google. One of his donations in 2018 came from Adam Kovacevich, who was then the senior director of Alphabet’s federal lobbying team. According to a report from Mother Jones, Kovacevich spearheaded efforts at Google to bolster the company’s relationships with members of the GOP, including by getting the company to sponsor a reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference in order to “court the people who influence” conservative lawmakers. He was also behind the company’s efforts to fund think tanks that would produce reports favorable to Google’s interests, according to the report. Kovacevich has since founded a Big Tech lobbying group called Chamber of Progress that is funded by Google, Uber, Meta, Apple, and other companies, and that has been lobbying Congress against legislation that would limit the ways Big Tech companies could use their market power to gain advantages against competitors and consumers. Kovacevich, a former Democratic staffer, touts his tech industry group as center-left, but he sides with Jordan in opposing antitrust legislation that would reduce the power of Big Tech.
The Judiciary Committee’s second highest-ranking member, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, has joined Jordan in assailing Khan’s tenure at the FTC. Issa recently shared on Twitter a Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing Khan that was written by a vice president of the conservative lobbying group FreedomWorks. Last month, Issa appeared on Fox Business and described an FTC order blocking a vertical merger of biotech companies Illumina and Grail as potentially “the worst regulatory move ever.” Of all Republicans on the committee, Issa has received the most donations from Big Tech employees and company PACs, with more than $134,000, including $71,000 from Microsoft’s PAC—making the company one of his top PAC contributors—and nearly $34,000 from Google employees. In addition, the tech industry trade group Consumer Technology Association, which in recent years has represented all five Big Tech firms, has been one of Issa’s top career PAC donors, according to OpenSecrets, giving his campaigns $75,000. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook continue to be “core members” of the trade group.
While Issa has called to investigate what he describes as Big Tech censorship of conservatives, which he claims is the “singular Big Tech crisis of our times,” he rejected the tech platform-focused antitrust legislation that was passed out of the previous Congress’ Judiciary Committee to rein in the market power of giants like Facebook and Google. In June 2021, Issa slammed the tech antitrust push, calling the bills an “unprecedented expansion of big government,” and joined fellow California Republican Tom McClintock—and some Judiciary Committee Democrats from the state—in arguing that the legislation unfairly targeted Apple, Google, and Facebook, among other things. Later in 2021, Issa received a $2,500 contribution from Meta lobbyist Greg Maurer. Maurer, a vice president of public policy for Meta, is a former aide to Republican Speaker John Boehner who joined the company in 2012 as Facebook was stepping up its conservative network in Washington. This year, with Republicans again in control of the committee, Issa has accepted donations from Apple lobbyist Jeff Dobrozsi and Microsoft Competition Policy Counsel Stewart Jeffries. In years past, Issa received $3,000 in donations from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates.
Committee member Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has been a partner to congressional Democrats on legislation designed to rein in anti-competitive behaviors of the tech giants, but he is still taking money from the industry’s PACs and lobbyists. Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft’s PACs have each made donations to Gaetz’s campaigns, as have Apple lobbyist Dobrozsi and Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey, who sold his company to Meta
In December 2022, Gaetz was one of 11 House Republicans who co-signed a letter to Khan from Judiciary Committee member Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Wis.) expressing concern that she was shifting the FTC away from relying solely on a consumer welfare standard when reviewing corporate mergers. The consumer welfare standard, which can be as simple as a prediction of whether the costs of goods and services would go up or down under a merger, is also held up as the foundation of antitrust policy by groups like the Republican-aligned think tank American Action Forum; under the Biden administration, agency heads like the FTC’s Khan have worked to modernize merger guidelines and address anti-competitive effects.
During the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, the five Big Tech companies brought in around $320 billion in profits, shattering records they had set the year before. To block tech antitrust bills that had bipartisan support like the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which would prevent platforms from self-preferencing their own products, the tech giants spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying while in an all-out battle to block the measures, according to OpenSecrets. The lobbying blitz by Amazon, Apple, and others coincided with the bills not being brought up for a vote in the Senate before the end of the last Congress.
A couple lobbyists with Big Tech companies have donated to multiple Republican Judiciary Committee members. Meta’s Maurer has donated $500 to Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), $500 to Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), $250 to Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ore.), in addition to the $2,500 he contributed to Issa. Apple’s Dobrozsi has donated $500 to Jordan and $1,000 to Biggs, in addition to his donations to Issa and Gaetz described above.
Google has recently bestowed some favors on freshman Florida Republican Rep. Laurel Lee, who joined the House Judiciary Committee after having been appointed Florida Secretary of State in 2019 by Gov. Ron DeSantis. After Lee won the midterm election for Florida’s Fifteenth Congressional District, Google’s PAC donated $5,000 to her campaign in December to help retire its debt, and it gave another $1,000 in May. Lee is not alone among House Republicans on the committee in seeing PAC donations from the biggest tech companies: Rep. Ben Cline, who pledged to “fight against the abuses of Big Tech” after being appointed to a Republican task force in 2021, received $2,500 from Microsoft’s PAC in April.