Donut break journalism
This week, Roll Call, a popular DC-based publication that covers Congress, aggressively promoted an event to its 364,000 Twitter followers. The outlet was giving away donuts on Wednesday from a food truck parked near the U.S. Capitol.
These and other tweets promoting the event were interspersed with Roll Call's reporting on the New Hampshire primary, the Twitter whistleblower, and a proposed national abortion ban. Roll Call also promoted the event to its 20,000 followers on Instagram:
What Roll Call did not disclose on Twitter or Instagram is that this event was an advertisement. The donut truck was paid for by the App Security Project, which is part of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. It is part of an advocacy campaign to defeat a piece of antitrust legislation targeting tech companies, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), that is making its way through Congress. (The tweets mention the App Security Project without identifying the tweets as an ad or the event as a paid advocacy campaign.)
Each donut had a theme that represented one of the purported dangers of AICOA. The "Sugary Sideloader," for example, represented a threat to "the secure ecosystems created by American companies."
In an interview in front of the food truck, Patrick Hedger, the executive director of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, told Popular Information his organization had paid Roll Call to put together the event. According to Hedger, Roll Call produced the event "soup to nuts," obtaining the truck, buying the donuts, and handling the promotion.
Asked who was funding the donuts and the broader campaign to defeat antitrust legislation, Hedger said that the Taxpayers Protection Alliance had "120,000 grassroots members" that support its work. Hedger did not mention that his organization had recently received funding from Google, Facebook, and Amazon. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance has also received funding from the political network controlled by right-wing billionaire Charles Koch. Hedger previously worked as a policy analyst at the Charles Koch Institute.
Contacted after the event, Hedger refused to address the role of large tech companies in the donut truck event or his organization's larger effort to defeat AICOA. "While we have a wide network of supporters, for the sake of all of our supporters’ privacy we do not discuss or disclose who our specific donors are or are not," Hedger told Popular Information.
While Hedger describes the Taxpayers Protection Alliance as a "grassroots" organization, according to the group's latest filing with the IRS, the group is a front for a political consulting firm, which manages its day-to-day operations:
THE TAXPAYERS PROTECTION ALLIANCE (TPA) HAS GIVEN CONTROL OF THE MANAGEMENT DUTIES AND DAILY ACTIVITIES OF THE ORGANIZATION TO MLM CONSULTING, LLC (MLM). MLM WILL BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANAGING THE ORGANIZATION AND WORK TO SUPPORT THE EXEMPT PURPOSES OF TPA. THE PRESIDENT OF TPA, DAVID WILLILAMS, IS THE SOLE OWNER OF MLM CONSULTING, LLC. COMPENSATION FOR SERVICES TO MLM IS AGREED UPON WITH THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS ON A YEARLY BASIS.
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance is one of a constellation of right-wing groups that received funding from these tech giants and now advocate against antitrust legislation. Other groups include the Americans for Tax Reform, the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, and the Innovation Economy Institute.
The donut truck is a small but illustrative example of how purportedly "objective" media outlets allow corporations to manipulate the political conversation for cash. Roll Call Editor in Chief Jason Dick told Popular Information that Roll Call "ensures, to the best of our ability, that readers know the difference between our stories and advertising." He said it is "not necessary" to label most ads because it is "self-evident." Dick acknowledged that this policy, as applied to its social media accounts, was "not…perfect."
The multi-million dollar lobbying campaign
AICOA was introduced last October by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The bill, which has 12 other bipartisan sponsors, would stop large tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google from favoring their own products and services above other sellers in their marketplaces. For example, Amazon would not be allowed to highlight its own products over those sold by third-party sellers.
The bill, which has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, gives federal and state authorities the right to sue if big tech companies are found to prefer their own products over products from other sellers, limit in any way “the ability of sellers on the site to compete with the platform’s product offerings,” or “discriminate with regards to the terms of service.”
According to Klobuchar, the legislation would stop tech companies that “increasingly give preference to their own products and services” and “ensure small businesses and entrepreneurs still have the opportunity to succeed in the digital marketplace.”
The bill has support from the Department of Justice, which argued that the bill would stop companies from “exercis[ing] outsized market power in our modern economy.” According to CNBC, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told Klobuchar and Grassley that he “fully supports the bill.” In August, a spokesperson in Schumer’s office told Politico that he “plans to bring [AICOA] up for a vote,” and is “working with [Klobuchar]” to “gather the needed votes.”
Many big tech companies have loudly announced their opposition to the bill. Amazon said the bill would “would harm consumers and the… businesses that sell in the Amazon store,” Google argued that the legislation would “make it more difficult for companies to offer free services,” Facebook said “antitrust laws should ‘not attempt to dismantle the products and services people depend on,’” and Apple argued that it would “hurt competition and discourage innovation” while putting “consumers in harm’s way because of the real risk of privacy and security breaches.”
Supporters of the bill have denounced these arguments, saying that the bill “does not outlaw Amazon Prime… Or free shipping.” Representative Ken Buck (R-CO) argued that big tech companies “know that these bills will create competition in their marketplace.”
Big tech has also launched a massive lobbying campaign against the bill. According to an analysis by OpenSecrets, Apple “spent a record $4.6 million on federal lobbying during the first six months of 2022,” with the company’s lobbyists reportedly focusing on AICOA. Between January and June, Amazon also broke its lobbying record, spending “$10.7 million,” which is more than the company has spent on lobbying than in “any prior six-month period.”
During the first six months of 2022, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, “spent a record $10.8 million on lobbying,” with the top issue being AICOA. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, also spent “over $6.7 million on federal lobbying” between January and June. Bloomberg additionally reported that Schumer, who hasn’t received any money from the top lobbyists for Apple, Amazon, or Google since 2017, recently received “$30,000 in direct donations to his campaign from the lobbyists and executives” of the big tech companies opposing AICOA.
While AICOA originally advanced easily out of committee, the momentum of the bill seems to have stalled following big tech’s efforts to defeat the bill. According to Klobuchar, there is no “exact date” expected for a vote.