Meta Donated $US4 ($6) Million to a Supposedly ‘Grassroots’ Lobbying Firm to Fight Antitrust Bills on Its Behalf

Meta Donated $US4 ($6) Million to a Supposedly ‘Grassroots’ Lobbying Firm to Fight Antitrust Bills on Its Behalf
Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images

Meta’s loosening its pocket books and digging trenches in preparation for a political war over antitrust legislation that, if lost, could rattle its struggling core business. Though Meta, and even CEO Mark Zuckerberg have begrudgingly advocated for small reforms in the past, the company is increasingly relying on a little known lobbying firm called the American Edge Project to spearhead its opposition to widely popular policy proposals supporters say will bolster competition in the the digital economy.

A new report from the The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) cites a 501(c)(4)’s 990 filing from AEP which shows the organisation received a single $US4 ($6) million donation between December 10, 2019, and October 31, 2020. That donation came around the same time Meta (then Facebook) told the Washington Post it contributed to AEP. Put together, the report’s authors argue these findings imply Meta not only bankrolls AEP, but may have also served as its founder.

TTP claims AEP spent somewhere around $US5.4 ($7) million in ad placements just last year. Going further, TTP claims AEP — working on the behalf of Meta — commissioned IPSOS polls with the intended purpose of fooling politicians into believing their voters were opposed to antitrust reforms. One of those polls, which claimed Democrats would lose their political advantage if they pursued strong tech regulation, made its way onto an Axios PM newsletter as part of a sponsored post.

“With Facebook’s financial backing, American Edge Project has succeeded in establishing the specter of a grassroots, bipartisan façade to disguise its corporate goals,” the report’s authors write.

So who or what exactly is the AEP anyways? The organisation, founded just two years ago, claims it’s a coalition, “dedicated to the proposition that American innovators are an essential part of U.S. economic health, national security, and individual freedoms.” On its website, AEP praises U.S technology companies for creating “a more connected and tolerant world,” and argues they are instrumental in maintaining competitiveness with rival countries like China.

Frances Townsend, who served as a White House Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Advisor during Georg W. Bush’s administration, outlines the firm’s position on tech in the video below.

“We can’t allow our adversaries to win the tech race,” Townsend says. “If our leaders don’t change course, American citizens and businesses will become more dependent on authoritarian regimes for our technology.”

Tech watchdog groups like the Tech Oversight Project on the other hand have written critically of AEP, claiming it “obscured its donors” by presenting itself as a grassroots nonprofit despite full-throated backing from Meta. Since its founding, The Tech Oversight Project claims AEP has coordinated with and worked alongside Facebook to vigorously oppose popular anti-trust reforms and strengthen Big Tech’s power.

“Big Tech lobbying shops, including American Edge, are now the biggest spenders in Washington because Facebook and the other Big Tech monopolies know the only way to secure support for themselves is to buy it,” Tech Oversight Project Executive Director Sacha Haworth, told Gizmodo. “Americans of all ages and political persuasions are in favour of holding these monopolies accountable for keeping would-be rivals out of the marketplace and limiting our choices, which is why it’s a no-brainer that Congress pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act now.”

In a statement sent to Gizmodo, a Meta spokesperson attempted to downplay the significance of the TTP’s findings, claiming it had previously disclosed its involvement with AEP two years ago. While that’s true, the TTP report highlights the hulking extent of Meta’s involvement with AEP in a way previously unknown. Those deep ties, both financially and ideologically, point to a reality where AEP increasingly resembles an expensive Meta mouthpiece.

On the issue of antitrust, Meta said the current reforms being considered among lawmakers, “would do nothing to address the areas of greatest concern to people and could weaken America’s competitiveness,” two points echoed near verbatim throughout AEP’s website.

“That’s why we’ve joined many other organisations in opposition to these antitrust proposals, while also calling on Congress to pass updated internet regulations addressing content moderation, election integrity and privacy,” the spokesperson added.

Meta finds itself “up against a wall” on regulation

In an interview with Gizmodo, American Economic Liberties Project Senior Policy Analyst Krista Brown said the TTP’s new documents weren’t necessarily surprising, but are emblematic of Big Tech’s “absurd” talking points around regulation and antitrust.

“Facebook has acquired over 90 companies and stymied innovations over the years so the claims that they are helping small business and the tech sector at large are unfounded,” Brown said. Brown went on to say Meta’s declining trust amongst the general public means it can no longer act as an effective spokesperson for its own policy pursuits. That makes seemingly independent firms like AEP all the more appealing vessels. According to Brown, growing support, both among the public and Congress for competition reform has left Meta “up against a wall.”

According to the TTP report, AEP allegedly paid eight of its coalition members between $US7,500 ($10,412) and $US25,000 ($34,705) in grants. In return, those members, which include prominent right-leaning think tanks like The Lexington Institute, allegedly drafted white papers and wrote op-eds favouring AEP’s policy agendas. Several of those op-eds tried to tug on some Americans’ fears around China, arguing increased regulation of U.S. companies could lead the country to lose its technological advantage with China.

Lobbying groups like AEP are ramping up their messaging effort with looming antitrust legislation just around the corner

AEP’s spending efforts come as a volley of anti-trust bills are slowly creeping their way through Congress. If even one of them passes, it could mark a tectonic shift in the way companies like Meta conduct their business and acquire companies. For years, calls to regulate tech companies have earned the overwhelming buy-in from everyday people, and represents one of the fleeting policy issues still able to amass bipartisan support. That cross-party support has made opposing these policy measures annoyingly difficult for Big Tech’s hired guns.

Last year, a survey released by Vox and the left-leaning firm Data for Progress found 59% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans said Big Tech’s economic power presented a “problem” for the U.S. economy. Going a step further, 55% of Democrats and 61% of Republicans said they supported breaking up Big Tech. That shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. Poll after poll lay bare how Big Tech firms (and Meta specifically) have repeatedly burned their trust among the public.

AEP reportedly sought to create a counter image of a seemingly bipartisan opposition to reforms, beginning by recruiting ex-government officials from both political parties, “in order to paint its pro-tech cause as a truly bipartisan effort,” the TTP report notes.

“After spending the first year of its public-facing existence trying to lift the public’s opinion of American tech firms, AEP can now push back against any proposed bipartisan antitrust legislation with a supposedly bipartisan counterpoint: that the success of Big Tech and the successes of the American people are inextricably intertwined,” the report reads.

And though legislation limiting tech’s economic power regularly draws wide support, there’s some signs the general public’s once ravenous appetite for reigning in Big Tech may be starting to cool. According to a new Pew Research poll conducted last week, 44% of U.S. adults said they favour more government regulation of tech companies, a dip from 56% who favoured more regulation the year prior. Those calling for less regulation of tech companies nearly doubled in 2022. Those mark noteworthy reversals from other prominent polls which showed increasing support for tech regulation in recent years.

Brown of the American Economic Liberties, said it’s difficult for people to keep issues surrounding tech front of mind when there are so many other immediate issues vying for their attention.

“It’s been proven time and again that Facebook is not to be trusted for the small business companies that are perpetually hurt by Facebook and other large tech companies, but it is also hard for people to maintain attention on Big Tech as an issue while there’s inflation going on, while there’s Covid, and especially when all of these cases are in discovery now.”