Google, Amazon and Snap Inc. wasted little time this year in trying to cultivate the new crop of enforcers at the Federal Trade Commission, an agency that will play a key role in any Washington crackdown on the tech industry, according to emails obtained by POLITICO.
The companies reached out to schmooze the four FTC commissioners appointed by President Donald Trump soon after they they were sworn into office in May, according to 73 pages of email communications obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Google was particularly active, inviting commission staff to coffee, setting up a meeting with the new Republican chairman, Joe Simons, and touting a project it said would give users more control of their data.
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Amazon also requested a sit-down with Simons to discuss the company’s “approach to privacy” and its view of the “overall retail competitive landscape including our grocery business,” a reference to the Whole Foods chain it acquired last year. Amazon’s head of policy in Washington, D.C., Brian Huseman, who previously worked for two Republican FTC chairs, also offered to assist Simons’ new chief of staff, writing, “And if I can help in any way with the job, just holler.”
But the emails indicate that Simons’ staff rebuffed Amazon, telling the e-commerce giant to follow up later while discussing among themselves the chairman’s apparent reluctance to take the meeting. “I hate to tell Brian, no, never, no meetings. But I also don’t want to string him along unnecessarily,” Tara Isa Koslov, Simons’ chief of staff, wrote to two other aides to the chairman.
The behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign comes amid increasing pressure on the tech sector over a range of issues under the FTC’s purview, including privacy, data security and antitrust. The new commissioners are conducting hearings on updating their consumer and competition priorities, and tech companies are watching for any sign of a tougher approach like European Union regulators have taken. Trump has frequently suggested that internet giants merit antitrust scrutiny, and Democratic FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra tapped Lina Khan, the author of an influential paper making an antitrust case against Amazon, for a stint as an adviser.
Google, Amazon and Snap representatives declined to comment. One trade group official defended the outreach, saying it’s incumbent on the major tech companies to educate lawmakers and regulators about their businesses, especially in the current political climate.
“For them not to be engaged and explain who they are and talk about what they’re about would be ridiculous, frankly,” said Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which represents companies like Amazon and Google. “Big companies in the tech industry are going to draw attention and it makes sense that they respond to that and be prepared for that.”
But one critic of the internet giants said the lobbying is a way to “cocoon the FTC” and try to influence its leadership against punishing them.
“The FTC was set up and designed to prevent large companies from dominating and structuring markets,” said Matt Stoller, policy director of the Open Markets Institute, a D.C.-based advocacy group focused on corporate consolidation. “So to have these companies coming in and saying, ‘We’re just here to educate the commissioners,’ the commissioners should not be getting their information from the companies. They should be getting their information from the staff of the FTC.”
FTC spokesperson Cathy MacFarlane would not discuss specific company meetings, but said, “The chairman’s office is open to meeting requests that have substantive concerns they wish to discuss.” She said Simons also met with 11 consumer advocacy groups this summer.
One tech company that didn’t appear in the email correspondence is Facebook, which faces perhaps the most immediate threat from the FTC. The agency has confirmed it’s investigating Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica breach, in which the political data firm linked to Trump’s 2016 campaign improperly obtained information on up to 87 million Facebook users. The social network has since disclosed a separate breach that resulted in the data of 29 million users being stolen.
The FTC and Facebook declined to comment on that. It was not immediately clear if Facebook simply didn’t communicate with the commission offices, or if the FTC is keeping such records under wraps as it investigates the company.
Google has a fraught history with the FTC: The agency conducted a nearly two-year antitrust investigation of the search giant during the Obama administration, but closed the case in 2013 without bringing charges. The FTC’s decision to let Google off with essentially a slap on the wrist — requiring only modest changes to the company’s patent and business practices — drew intense criticism, particularly after The Wall Street Journal reported that the commissioners at the time went against an FTC staff report recommending an antitrust lawsuit against the company.
After the new commissioners took office this year, Google swung into action, sending senior policy counsel Rob Mahini, a former FTC official, to establish connections with the agency. He set up a July 25 meeting between Google’s Kent Walker, now the company’s senior vice president of global affairs, and Simons. Walker also met with Chopra, one of the commission’s two Democrats, that same month.
Mahini — an attorney who spent seven years in various positions at the FTC before leaving in 2012 — also emailed FTC aides highlighting Google’s work on an industrywide project aimed at “helping users securely move their data between service providers.” He also flagged Google’s newly released artificial intelligence principles to Democratic Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter’s office, saying he wanted her to be “among the first to know.”
Amazon, meanwhile, dispatched Huseman, its vice president of public policy and a seven-year veteran of the FTC, to establish early connections with the new commissioners. He set up a May meeting between Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky and Noah Phillips, one of the commission’s Republicans. Zapolsky also met with Chopra in May.
But Huseman was gently rebuffed by aides to Simons when he tried to coordinate a September meeting between the chairman and two Amazon executives, Zapolsky and Jeff Wilke, the chief of Amazon’s consumer business. The aides, apparently acting on the chairman’s wishes, told Huseman they would follow up later, while internally, they discussed whether denying Amazon would leave a vacuum that would be filled by other commissioners, according to the emails.
MacFarlane, the FTC spokesperson, said the chairman generally declines “a ‘Meet and Greet,’ where there is no concrete problem or agenda.”
Aides to both Phillips and Slaughter noted that in addition to tech companies, the commissioners receive requests to meet with consumer advocacy groups, think tanks and trade associations. Slaughter “welcomes requests for introductory meetings,” an aide said, while a Phillips adviser said the commissioner “believes that it is important to learn as much as he can from these different participants.”
Chopra, who has publicly expressed concerns about data collection and anticompetitive conduct, has discussed those issues in meetings with companies, nonprofits and other organizations, said Erie Meyer, staff technologist for the Democrat.
Snap also tapped its head of policy, Gina Woodworth, who previously worked as staff director for the Senate Republican High Tech Task Force, to set up introductory meetings. Woodworth explained she wanted to provide details on the company’s policies in emails to the offices of Phillips and Slaughter.
The FTC has a number of tech companies — including Google, Facebook and Snap — under 20-year consent decrees for previous privacy violations, and those agreements give the agency a potential vehicle for pursuing fines should it identify new violations.
Ashley Gold contributed to this report.
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