Amazon and Big Tech cozy up to Biden camp with cash and connections
By Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a framed Joe Biden poster in the background, Amazon.com Inc's (NASDAQ: AMZN) Jay Carney made no secret of his long history with the presidential candidate while speaking at a virtual policy roundtable during August's Democratic party convention.
Carney, who is Amazon's public policy and communications chief, touted the hundreds of thousands of jobs his company has created and joined Microsoft Corp's (NASDAQ: MSFT) President Brad Smith as one of two senior tech executives to have a public role at the convention - hinting at Amazon's potential influence on a Biden administration if the democrat wins the White House.
Amazon appears to have taken an early lead making in-roads with the Biden camp, according to data gathered by Reuters from OpenSecrets and campaign finance records, along with interviews with over a dozen stakeholders including anti-monopoly groups, lobbyists, congressional aides, competitors and lawmakers.
Joining Amazon, Alphabet's Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) and Microsoft are among the top five contributors to Joe Biden's candidate campaign committee in the 2020 cycle, according to data from OpenSecrets, a website which tracks money in politics and campaign finance records.
The firms are prohibited by law from donating themselves. The contributions were either made by the company's political action committees (PACs) themselves, members of the PAC or their employees.
Tech is strengthening relationships in case of a Biden victory to ensure they have a voice in an onslaught of federal and state investigations into their business practices, according to campaign finance records and interviews.
The industry's coziness with the Democratic Party, which dates back through several elections, has critics of their market dominance worried.
Sally Hubbard, who has worked with Democratic lawmakers in the past and currently focuses on monopoly power of tech companies at Washington-based Open Markets Institute, does not want a Biden victory to translate into a repeat of what was widely viewed as President Barack Obama's hands off approach to tech.
"Are we going to see the same thing with a Biden administration?" she asked, adding there will be a significant amount of pressure from anti-monopoly groups and the progressive wing of the Democratic party to hold the companies accountable.
Depending on the stance of a potential Biden administration, existing antitrust probes under President Trump and state attorneys general could intensify or be weakened.
Biden, for his part, has criticized large internet companies during interviews and campaign events. He has urged the revocation of a key legal shield protecting internet companies from liability over user-generated content. He has also expressed concern over market concentration and privacy issues in the technology industry; criticized Amazon for not paying taxes; and expressed displeasure with Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg.
His two main advisors on tech policy include Bruce Reed, who served as Biden's chief of staff from 2011-13, and Stef Feldman, the campaign's policy director, according to a source with the Biden campaign. Reed and Feldman did not respond to requests for comment via the campaign.
A spokeswoman for Amazon said the company's PAC did not contribute to the Biden campaign. She said Amazon supported both the Democratic and Republican National Convention with technology and digital services to increase viewership.
"We work with each administration in the same way ... our approach will not change regardless of who wins the election," the spokeswoman added.
Biden campaign spokesman Matt Hill said Joe Biden is against the abuse of power. "Many technology giants and their executives have not only abused their power, but misled the American people, damaged our democracy, and evaded any form of responsibility. That ends with a President Biden," Hill added.
Google declined comment. Microsoft said the contributions were made by its employees.
'PROGRESSIVES WILL STRUGGLE'
Tech's ties to Biden run deep.
Amazon's Carney worked in former President Barack Obama's administration as press secretary for a little over three years. He was Vice President Biden's communications director for the first two years of the Obama administration.
Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky is a top fundraiser for Biden, also known as a bundler who as individuals have raised more than $25,000. Bundlers are sometimes rewarded with plum positions in their beneficiary's administration, such as key jobs in federal agencies and influential advisory commissions. Zapolsky has also directly contributed a little over $250,000 to different funds supporting Biden's presidency, according to campaign finance records. Zapolsky did not comment.
Meanwhile the Biden campaign's transition team and working groups have added at least eight people who worked for Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple and others with ties to these companies.
A senior policy counsel for a progressive Senate Democrat, who did not wish to be named, said Big Tech's closeness with the Biden campaign is worrying. The battle for the left wing of the Democratic party on this issue will be on whether they can get crucial appointments in the administration and less about moving Biden toward progressive options, the aide added.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a close ally of Trump and a vocal critic of large tech companies, said the progressives may get a "rhetorical nod in their direction now and then," but the Biden campaign's fundraising shows the progressives will struggle. "For Amazon in particular to be featured at a political convention is really, really worrisome," Hawley told Reuters. "It's taking their lobbying to a whole new level."
To be sure, many large technology companies - their employees, PAC's or PAC members - have been top contributors to Democratic presidential campaigns in the past three election cycles, with one notable exception: Amazon. However, contributions from the Seattle-based retailer's employees have now made Amazon the fifth largest contributor to the Democratic nominee's candidate campaign committee, according to data from OpenSecrets and campaign finance records. Large technology companies are entirely missing from the Trump campaign committee's top 20 contributors list.
Donations from senior Amazon executives to the Biden campaign during the primaries were second only to Microsoft, according to data from the Revolving Door Project, which is part of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
"I think all the fundraising we are seeing is probably going to buy them (Amazon) access, but in terms of policy results, I think it's going to buy them very little," said an advisor on tech policy to the Biden campaign, who did not wish to be named. "There is a lot of collective outrage against tech in Washington these days, and they simply cannot fly under the radar."
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; editing by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin)