Emails reveal how Amazon and Google tap friends in government to influence policies. Critics say there’s too much ‘coziness’ with Big Tech.

  • Critics say Big Tech has an outsize role in shaping government policy.
  • Emails show close ties between US trade officials and former colleagues now working in Big Tech.
  • The activist group Demand Progress says the US trade department has a “culture problem.”

When you work as a Big Tech lobbyist, chances are you already know someone in government.

According to OpenSecrets data, 82.4% of Amazon lobbyists and 81.3% of Alphabet lobbyists previously worked for the government in 2022.

Critics have long claimed that this revolving door allows Big Tech firms to play a disproportionate role in shaping trade agreements in order to protect their bottom lines and limit how they can be regulated. Sen. Elizabeth Warren claimed in a report in May that emails sent between Big Tech companies and the Office of the United States Trade Representative revealed a pattern of Big Tech getting “unparalleled access” to trade officials, including the US trade representative, Katherine Tai, to shape decisions on policies like digital tariffs in their favor.

“Big Tech uses its special revolving door access to furtively push for rigged trade policies,” Warren wrote in her letter.

Insider reviewed a set of emails sent between USTR members and lobbyists from Google and Amazon from April 2022 to May 2023, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared exclusively with Insider by the advocacy group Demand Progress.

The emails show a “coziness” between Big Tech and trade officials, according to Demand Progress. Some emails show close ties between USTR officials and former colleagues who now work in Big Tech, which critics say provides tech companies with immediate and direct access to policymakers that civil society organizations do not have.

The emails only include correspondence with Amazon and Google lobbyists and do not include communications with representatives from other technology companies.

“All USTR staff maintain a high level of ethical transparency and would never give favored treatment to certain industries or individuals,” a USTR spokesperson said in a statement to Insider.

Tai, according to the spokesperson, has been meeting with workers and small-business owners to “ensure their perspectives are included in the development and implementation of US trade policy.”

‘USTR has a culture problem’

Emails show trade officials reaching out to tech lobbyists for advice on issues, updating them on the status of bills, and even informing them about closed-door discussions.

Andrea Boron, a USTR director for services and digital trade, emailed Google and Amazon in May to alert them that Brazil’s telecoms agency was considering charging network fees to digital service providers such as Google and asked for advice on negotiations.

According to a USTR spokesperson, the email was sent to obtain “more information in a time of uncertainty.”

“At no point did USTR ask for Google or Amazon’s help in forming a position on this proposed regulation, nor did we seek their help in drafting comments,” a spokesperson for the agency said.

Several former USTR employees have gone on to work as lobbyists for Amazon and Google, including Mary Thornton, a former USTR director and top lobbyist at Amazon Web Services until recently. Karan Bhatia, Google’s global head of government affairs, was a deputy US trade representative from 2005 to 2007 and appears in several of the emails.

Some emails highlight the access that the tech titans have to important policy discussions. Jillian DeLuna, the digital trade director, sent Thornton a photo of an e-commerce presentation from a closed-door conference in June 2022, and they discussed when the material would be allowed to be shared.

According to an Amazon spokesperson, this was due to Thornton’s participation on a congressionally mandated government committee where she could receive confidential information from the USTR.

Bhatia emailed Tai in October 2022 to raise concerns about then-pending Canadian legislation that would require tech giants to pay for news content and require sites like YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Spotify to promote Canadian content.

Two months later, Kate Kalutkiewicz, an Amazon lobbyist (and former USTR staffer), thanked USTR staff for raising concerns about the bill during a meeting with Canada’s minister of international trade. “Your action on behalf of American companies was incredibly impactful, and very appreciated,” she said in a statement. Despite this, Canada’s Online News Act became law in June.

“These emails are more evidence of what we’ve known for some time: USTR has a culture problem,” said Maria Langholz, Demand Progress’s communications director. “There is way too much coziness with Big Tech and other corporate interests.”

A spokesperson for Amazon said in a statement: “Like many other American companies with significant domestic investments and job creation, we advocate on issues that are important to our customers and our sellers, and that includes maintaining open lines of communication with officials across all levels of government.”

Big Tech’s policy influence comes to a head in Asia

In a move that pleased some critics, Tai announced last month that the US would withdraw proposals made during the Trump administration that would have made it more difficult to regulate Big Tech firms and their AI systems.

This reversal has caused turbulence in talks over the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, an effort launched by the Biden administration to provide Asian countries with an economic alternative to China, which critics say is overly influenced by the tech industry.

Amazon’s Thornton thanked a USTR official, Ethan Holmes, in an email sent in March, for organizing a briefing between some Big Tech companies and US negotiators during an IPEF summit in Bali.

A USTR spokesperson told Insider that briefing its advisory committees was standard procedure.

In a Senate hearing the following month, Warren chastised USTR officials for keeping the content of the Bali meeting secret while allowing tech companies like Amazon and Google to attend and speak. “That’s just not right,” Warren declared. “This text should be public.”

According to a Google spokesperson, José Castaeda, the company lobbied for the IPEF to include “strong digital trade provisions.” “Along with startups, small businesses, and others, we will continue to advocate for policies that help consumers and small businesses, and support economic growth,” he went on to say.

Big Tech critics claim that the public or civil-society groups do not have access to policymakers, which is why Warren and others have called for more transparency.

“Big Tech lobbyists, especially those with past ties to the agencies, are frequently called upon by USTR as consultants and partners, giving corporate interests a say in nearly every part of the trade policymaking process,” Warren wrote in her May report, which was titled “Big Tech’s Big Con,” which concluded: “Americans deserve to know what trade negotiators are up to and that they are working in the public interest.”

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