Microsoft Exemption From Antitrust Bill Followed Company Donation to Top Democrat

Rhode Island congressman David Cicilline swore off big tech money in 2019

Rep. David Cicilline/ Youtube Screenshot
June 24, 2021

Rep. David Cicilline (D., R.I.) exempted Microsoft from a bill he sponsored to regulate big tech three months after he received $5,800 in donations from Microsoft president Brad Smith, FEC filings show.

Cicilline's decision to accept the money marked an about-face for the Rhode Island congressman, who swore off big tech money in 2019. Cicilline is the lead sponsor of the American Choice and Innovation Online Act, which would ban tech companies above a certain size from using their platforms to unfairly promote their own products. The bill originally applied to platforms with 500,000 monthly active users. Earlier this month, the threshold was quietly changed to 50 million active users, a change that would exempt Microsoft.

Cicilline did not explain why the bill text had changed to exclude Microsoft. But the donation from Microsoft’s CEO raises questions of how much influence tech companies have over bills designed to regulate their industry. In 2019, Cicilline announced he would not take money from big tech companies.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee debated a package of bills that would force big tech companies to provide data to competitors and give the Federal Trade Commission more tools to regulate them. Rep. Thomas Massie (R., Ky.) displayed an early draft of the bill marked "confidential Microsoft" obtained from a whistleblower, and suggested that Microsoft had received an early copy. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) proposed an amendment that would make Microsoft subject to the bill once again, which was defeated in an 18-25 vote.

Brad Smith has bragged about his company’s close ties to the Hill, telling CNBC "there are times when I call people who I don’t personally know, and somebody will say ‘you know, your folks have always shown up for me at my events. And we have a good relationship. Let me see what I can do to help you.’" When Microsoft attempted to buy TikTok, Smith personally called dozens of lawmakers to push the bid through.

As pressure on tech from Washington has increased over the past year, so has aggressive lobbying from big tech companies. Apple CEO Tim Cook reportedly called Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday to complain that the antitrust bills were rushed. The bills are the products of an 18-month House investigation into market power in the tech industry.

The lobbying pressure has not gone unnoticed on the Hill. In a June 22 Senate hearing, Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) was visibly frustrated as he blasted "well compensated lobbyists and their nonprofit proxies" who "pervert conservative economic and legal philosophy into a defense of big tech monopoly." Facebook and Amazon are now the largest corporate lobbying spenders in the country.

Cicilline’s spokesman claimed in April 2021 that he does not accept money from executives at tech firms. At the time, Politico noted that Cicilline had received $1,000 from a lobbyist for Apple. Smith has praised Cicilline in the past.

Microsoft has recently censored terms offensive to the Chinese Communist Party, including "Tiananmen Square" and "tank man," from its search engine Bing. It also banned discussion of the "lab leak" hypothesis from LinkedIn, the social networking platform it owns.