Big Data Goes to Washington -- And Spends Lots of Money

Big Bucks Are Backing Big Data's Lobbying Efforts on Capitol Hill

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Data is becoming a very expensive topic on Capitol Hill. If reports from the largest data brokers and digital-data collectors are any indication, more money is being spent to lobby lawmakers on issues pertaining to the consumer data industry than ever before.

It's not just the traditional data brokers and services firms lobbying Congress around data security and privacy issues, though. In fact, while Acxiom, Epsilon and Experian maintained their spending levels in 2011 and 2012, Facebook and Google -- two of the most pervasive digital-data collectors -- drastically increased their lobbying expenditures between 2011 and 2012.

Ad Age analysis of Lobbying Disclosure Reports listing data-related topics discussed with legislators.
Ad Age analysis of Lobbying Disclosure Reports listing data-related topics discussed with legislators.

According to Ad Age's analysis of U.S. lobbying disclosure reports, Facebook, whose efforts are heavily focused on data privacy and security, multiplied its spending 2.5 times in 2012 on outside lobbying firms and on in-house efforts. The company dropped nearly $4.6 million on lobbying last year -- $4 million of which went toward its in-house staff's lobbying -- up from $1.8 million in 2011, the reports show. In 2012, the company tacked on an additional three outside firms to its data-related lobbying roster, using a total of seven in 2012 that dealt with data issues.

"Our presence and growth in Washington reflect our commitment to explaining how our service works, the actions we take to protect the billion-plus people who use our service, the importance of preserving an open internet and the value of innovation to our economy," said a Facebook spokeswoman.

Facebook began lobbying Congress only in 2009, when it spent $256,000 on such activity, all by its own staff. But since those simpler times, the company has become a target of legislative inquiries and the Federal Trade Commission, often in relation to consumer privacy concerns. In November 2011, Facebook settled with the FTC on charges it made private information public after a site update, and gave advertisers access to personal information. The company paid no fine.

And then there's Google. The seemingly insatiable data collector has also come under heightened government scrutiny of its data practices. Just last year, Google agreed to pay the Federal Communications Commission a fine for allegedly obstructing a dropped investigation into whether Google's Street View mapping system collected personal data like e-mails from unsecure Wi-Fi networks.

But the $25,000 penalty was a mere scratch on a bolt in Google's nitro-boosted lobbying engine. The company was the most-generous supporter of the lobbying profession that Ad Age tracked for this story, spending $19.6 million on lobbying in 2012. Google worked with a dizzying array of lobbying firms last year: 25 in all, 14 of which dealt with data privacy and security. Google declined to comment.

It's no surprise firms like Facebook and Google are spending more on lobbying. Not only are they maturing, a slew of data security and privacy bills were introduced in 2011, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller's just-reintroduced Do-Not-Track Online Act and the SAFE Data Act, which would require data collectors and providers, including third parties, to notify individuals when personal-data security is breached. Changes to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act last year were also mentioned in lobbying disclosures for Facebook and other data collectors.

In some cases, data collectors are not opposed to the passage of such laws as much as they are interested in influencing what's in them. Acxiom, for example, supports a federal law calling for data-security-breach notification, which would simplify a variety of statewide rules. However, like other sectors, the data industry is leery of uncertainties created by new laws. Acxiom spent just $160,000 in 2012 on lobbying, the same as in 2011.

"We certainly have worked to cultivate relationships with key members of committees that have jurisdiction over these issues over the long haul," said Jennifer Barrett Glasgow, global privacy and public policy executive at Acxiom. Ad Age spoke with Ms. Glasgow last week while she was en route to the International Association of Privacy Professionals' Global Privacy Summit in Washington, D.C.

"We've been involved with these issues since the "90s," she said.

Data firm Epsilon -- founded the same year as Acxiom, 1969 -- also spent a relatively meager amount on lobbying in 2011 ($170,000) and 2012 ($140,000).

It's unclear precisely how much of the spending by Google and Facebook went toward data issues specifically; however, for this story, Ad Age included only expenditures reported in documents listing data security and privacy among topics discussed with legislators.

Many firms dealing in data rely on trade groups such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Direct Marketing Association to lobby Congress on their behalf. Both of those groups increased lobbying efforts -- much of which centered on data security and privacy -- in 2012. The IAB's spending rose to $240,000 last year from $170,000 in 2011, while the DMA boosted its to $200,000 from $160,000.

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