Tech giants recruit defenders among communities of color

Supporters of the legislation are unmoved.

“In a last-ditch attempt to preserve their corrosive powers, big tech is now circulating arguments that antitrust legislation will harm Black communities,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of House tech antitrust legislation and former whip of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in an email. “I don’t buy it.”

The tech companies are participating in a lobbying tradition: Large corporations have long donated to so-called affinity organizations that later take the companies’ side in Congress. The online giants have similarly recruited their vendors and customers to warn lawmakers that the antitrust changes would harm small businesses. A message grounded in social justice is especially relevant for the Biden era, given the priority that Democrats have placed on addressing racial and ethnic discrimination.

The head of one leading tech trade group said the companies are simply alerting lawmakers to the consequences of their proposed regulatory crackdown — and reaching out to “groups we thought might be interested in joining us.”

“Honestly, I don’t know that the authors of these bills have fully considered their unintentional impact on communities of color,” said Adam Kovacevich, a former Google executive who founded the trade group Chamber of Progress. “And it’s important that those concerns be a part of the debate.”

A spokesperson for the Seattle-area Washington Build Back Black Alliance said her coalition and its members have made their own choices when speaking out against legislation aimed at the tech industry. One of the alliance’s member groups has disclosed receiving at least $200,000 total from Amazon and Facebook.

“When we make policy decisions, we make policy decisions that are best for the people,” said Paula Sardinas, president of the public relations firm FMS Global Strategies, which represents the coalition. “The companies have zero input.”

The industry’s critics accused the big tech companies of casting about for reasons to oppose the antitrust changes. The tech companies have also argued that the legislation would harm national security and make it difficult for the U.S. to compete with China.

“This is just the latest attempt by the big tech companies to see what sticks,” said a congressional aide familiar with the companies’ conversations with Capitol Hill staffers and lawmakers. “Last week it was inflation, before that it was national security and China. Now this.” The aide was granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record.

The tech industry’s “efforts to buy up support aren’t fooling anyone,” said Jessica Quiason, deputy research director of the social justice group Action Center on Race and the Economy. Her group accuses technology companies of criminalizing and targeting “Black, brown, and Muslim communities,” for instance through Google’s cooperation with law enforcement.

The legislation at the center of the lobbying fight includes the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S.2992 (117), backed by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who say it would prevent huge tech platforms from unfairly clobbering their rivals. The big tech companies say this and other bills could hurt minority-owned and small businesses that rely on Google, Amazon, Apple and Meta, and would threaten the viability of services like Amazon Prime and Gmail.

“Many different groups have raised concerns that Congress’ controversial bills could create unintended consequences for consumers and small businesses across the country,” said Google spokesperson Julie Tarallo McAlister.

An Amazon spokesperson echoed that argument, and said the company supports many organizations that it aligns with on policy issues.

Meta declined to comment.

The president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group representing Black newspaper publishers, jumped into the fray earlier this month by writing to the Congressional Black Caucus, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) expressing his concerns about the antitrust proposals.

“Some of the proposed reforms go too far,” NNPA leader Benjamin Chavis wrote, “and could hamper the ability for Black and minority-owned small businesses and publishers to grow and thrive, especially as we navigate this pandemic.”

He specifically criticized the proposal from Klobuchar and Grassley, which the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced last month.

Google’s communications team sent Chavis’ letter to reporters. So did the public relations firm Firehouse Strategies, which represents the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group whose members include Google, Amazon, Meta and Apple.

In 2020, Google announced a partnership with the NNPA aimed at boosting the association’s members’ advertising revenues. Meanwhile, Facebook funded NNPA’s Digital Newsletter Initiative until last year. In 2021, the NNPA produced a series of videos and articles called “Facebook Success Stories,” which highlighted methods for monetizing content on the social media network. The NNPA declined to share details on how much money it received from those programs.

Chavis said in an interview that the NNPA is “pleased and proud of the relationship we’ve had with the tech companies because at the end of the day, they’ve helped our newspapers stay in business.” He said his concerns about the legislation were unrelated to corporate support of the association, but that he worries that the bills could harm members of his organization who have benefited from the Google and Facebook partnerships.

Tarallo McAlister said the NNPA “is independent and represents its own policy positions.”

In an email, Firehouse Strategies co-founder Alex Conant wrote that Chavis is a “close friend” of Clyburn’s and that the letter explored Chavis’ “strong concerns about equity/damage to BIPOC businesses from the Klobuchar-Grassley bill.” Conant confirmed later that he sent the letter to reporters on behalf of CCIA, the big tech trade group.

The U.S. Hispanic Business Council, an advocacy group formed in September, has also sent out a statement opposing the Klobuchar-Grassley bill.

“This legislation could prohibit companies like Google, Amazon and Apple from offering digital tools and services that benefit entrepreneurs,” reads the statement from council president and CEO Javier Palomarez.

It was only the third statement the group had made related to policy since its founding. One board member, Marc Rodriguez, is a registered lobbyist for Apple in Texas.

Palomarez said that his organization receives funding from the major tech companies but they “do not opine on what issue we take up.” He said Rodriguez has not led the group’s antitrust efforts.

Frank Schembari, director of media relations with the PR firm Javelin, circulated the USHBC statement to reporters. Javelin DC also represents the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which includes Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon as members and is implementing a sweeping strategy to oppose antitrust changes aimed at the big tech companies. Schembari told POLITICO that the USHBC is not connected to either the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which Javelin also represents.

Neither Palomarez nor Schembari responded to follow-up questions about how much money the USHBC receives from the tech companies.

During the interview with POLITICO, Palomarez repeated one of Amazon’s most-touted statistics: the $530 billion it has spent investing in U.S. infrastructure and compensating its employees since 2010.

“As well-intentioned that some of these bills are, what was not taken into account was the negative impact it would have on American small businesses and certainly on Hispanic-owned small businesses,” Palomarez said.

Tech-linked business groups representing minority communities have spoken out against antitrust legislation even before Klobuchar and Grassley introduced their bill.

In June, the tech trade group Chamber of Progress — which counts Google, Amazon and Meta as members — circulated a letter raising concerns that “well-intentioned proposals” could harm small businesses and people who rely on the tech companies’ services. The Latino Coalition and the U.S. Black Chambers were among the groups signing the letter.

Google confirmed that it contributes money to both groups, although Tarallo-McAlister did not respond to questions about the amount. Amazon confirmed that it donates to the U.S. Black Chambers but also did not say how much the company gives.

The Latino Coalition lists Google as one of its corporate partners on its website, while the U.S. Black Chambers lists Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Meta as top-tier corporate donors. The latter group also helps lead Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator initiative and helps Google promote its tools for Black-owned businesses. The Latino Coalition and U.S. Black Chambers did not respond to a request for comment.

The same confluence of big tech companies and their smaller allies has appeared at the state level.

Last year, a coalition of Black, Hispanic and Asian American groups urged Washington state lawmakers to oppose a bill aimed at reducing the number of counterfeit items circulating on e-commerce platforms, including Amazon’s. The letter argued that the legislation would harm minorities, in part by requiring high-volume sellers to provide photo identification — a tactic the signers likened to voter suppression.

An Amazon lobbyist forwarded the groups’ letter to a state lawmaker working on the issue, the company later confirmed.

That letter was organized in part by Tabor100, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that advocates for economically empowering the African American community. Amazon and Facebook were founding members of Tabor100’s Black Business Equity Fund, meaning they contributed $100,000 or more each, according to Tabor’s website. Google and Facebook are also top donors to the Seattle Latino Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, another group that signed the letter.

Tabor100 referred questions from POLITICO to Sardinas, the Washington Build Back Black Alliance spokesperson, whose coalition also signed the letter. She said the groups that signed on had genuine concerns about how the bills could affect people of color who want to sell on Amazon but do not want to give up personal identifying information.

The groups did not have any conversations with Google, Amazon or Facebook before joining their effort, Sardinas said.

The Seattle Latino Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for comment.

The intervention of the tech industry’s allies comes amid a significant debate about whether the bills would adequately address the needs of communities of color. Many civil rights groups have stayed out of the antitrust fight, instead placing a priority on issues such as surveillance and content moderation. Others, like Color of Change, a progressive group focused on the intersection of civil rights and tech policy, support new antitrust legislation in both houses of Congress.

And some civil rights advocates say the bills don’t go far enough.

That’s the view of Jeremie Greer, co-founder of civil rights advocacy group Liberation in a Generation. He said that while his group supports new antitrust laws to rein in the big tech companies, lawmakers and congressional staff backing the bills should have better integrated the perspectives of Black and brown communities from the outset. Tech-backed minority groups have too much sway, he says.

“What these groups are doing is speaking for Black communities because they’re aware many of the legislators didn’t go out and do that outreach,” he said. “They’re filling an information vacuum.”