An advocacy group backed by Facebook received a $34 million donation from an anonymous donor as it waged a battle against antitrust legislation that would have more tightly regulated the tech industry.
A person who works with the group, American Edge Project, told CNBC that the $34 million was from Facebook. This person declined to be named in order to speak freely about the group’s finances.
The nonprofit raised the massive amount almost two years ago, according to the organization’s latest 990 tax forms. The documents reflect the nonprofit’s finances starting on Nov. 1, 2020, and carrying into Oct. 31, 2021. These disclosures are the most recent tax records available for public viewing and do not list names of the group’s donors.
A Meta spokesman declined to comment and referred CNBC to American Edge instead.
Doug Kelly, American Edge’s CEO, told CNBC in a statement that “the threats to America’s technological edge have a profound impact on our national security and economic well being and we’re leading the charge to make sure everyone is aware.”
The new documents show the tech advocacy group scored its biggest fundraising haul yet when bipartisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill were attempting to take on tech giants, including through antitrust legislation that didn’t pass Congress and a hearing in March 2021 featuring tech CEOs such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook changed its name to Meta in late 2021.
The American Edge Project launched its first pro-tech industry ad in 2020. The group’s previous 990 forms, from 2019 through late 2020, showed it raised all of its money from a single anonymous $4 million donation during that period. Facebook confirmed in 2020 to The Washington Post that it was contributing to the group. The person who works with American Edge told CNBC that the $4 million was also entirely from Facebook.
American Edge launched a wave of TV and digital ads from late 2020 through 2021, taking on antitrust proposals. A TV spot funded by the group suggested that small-business innovation could be affected if such legislation made its way through Congress.
In June 2021, the House Judiciary Committee passed a package of sweeping tech antitrust reforms. The measures proposed new rules on the largest online platforms, like requiring them to have capabilities for users to easily transfer their data to other services, shifting the burden of proof in merger cases onto dominant tech platforms, blocking platforms from operating businesses with conflicts of interest and from advantaging their own products on platforms they run.
The Senate later introduced a version of one of the bills, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, in October 2021, which aimed to bar self-preferencing on dominant tech services. That bill advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2022.
Taken together, the bills were poised to create a much more uncertain legal environment for Facebook and its peers, including by making it harder to acquire firms that could help their businesses grow.
Almost all of these bills did not get a full House or Senate vote after Big Tech companies and their industry groups opposed the pieces of legislation, saying they would impose unfair restrictions and result in negative effects for consumers. For example, Chamber of Progress, backed by Apple, Amazon, Google and Meta, has warned that the Senate bill would significantly alter Amazon Prime’s offerings like two-day shipping and make it harder to offer low-cost basics from its first-party brand, for fear of being charged with illegal self-preferencing.
American Edge spent over $5 million between TV and digital ads in 2021, according to data from AdImpact. It spent over $10 million on TV ads last year, AdImpact says. The group went into 2022 with over $13 million in net assets, according to its 990 forms.
The $34 million donation also came as American Edge announced it was adding former Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., as advisory board co-chairs to “lead the coalition’s efforts on internet openness, accessibility and free expression,” according to the press release. Walden is still listed on the group’s website as a leader of an advisory board, while Heitkamp is no longer listed.
A 2022 report by the watchdog Tech Transparency Project says Facebook isn’t just a “contributor” to American Edge, as the company confirmed to The Washington Post, but potentially its “sole funder.” The Tech Transparency Project receives funding from the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundations, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, Bohemian Foundation and Omidyar Network, according to its website.
American Edge’s website lists Facebook as a member of their supportive coalition. Other listed members include Bear Hill Advisors, the Center for Individual Freedom, NetChoice, the Connected Commerce Council, the National Black Chamber of Commerce and the National Small Business Association.
Facebook itself has spent over $58 million since the start of 2020 on federal lobbying, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.
Beyond the $34 million donation, the only other contribution listed on the tax disclosure was an another anonymous donation – of $25,000. The multimillion-dollar contribution allowed American Edge to spend just over $19 million on what the forms refer to as media placement and strategic services.
The 990 forms, which were signed and filed by the group in 2022, also show that powerful consulting firms that work for American Edge also received over $3 million combined from the organization. Cavalry LLC, a firm founded by former strategists of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was paid $1.1 million by American Edge from November 2020 through October 2021. The Washington Post reported that John Ashbrook, a founding partner at Cavalry and a former McConnell advisor, is helping guide the group.
Global Strategy Group, a political and corporate consulting firm that was founded by three Democratic strategists, received $910,000 from American Edge over that same time period. GSG has a history of working with Big Tech. Amazon previously employed the group while the company fought unionization efforts. Amazon itself has donated to a similar group while that nonprofit took on tech-related legislation.
The Washington Post reported that Jim Papa, a partner at Global Strategy Group who was an aide to former President Barack Obama, was also helping the organization. Papa says on his GSG profile page that among his current and former clients is FWD.us, a fellow 501(c)(4) nonprofit that was co-founded by Zuckerberg and actively lobbies on immigration-related issues.
A GSG representative did not return requests for comment.