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Are Big Tech Companies Violating Campaign Finance Laws?

             9/19/2018

Mark Zuckerberg

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

The Federal Election Commission recently ruled in favor of tech giant Microsoft, allowing them to provide services to political parties free of charge, specifically to protect the cybersecurity of Microsoft-owned accounts and data from foreign interference. Some have criticized the move as opening the door for corporate in-kind (non-monetary) donations, creating a loophole in current campaign finance laws and allowing big businesses to further influence the outcome of elections.

The service in question, AccountGuard, is an anti-hacking software used to “thwart election interference” according to Business Insider. Microsoft justified providing the service to both Democrats and Republicans with Microsoft-provided email accounts free of charge was purely a business decision to protect their company brand, because foreign intrusions into Microsoft-owned emails would hurt the company’s image. Indeed, before the election, many emails were illegally accessed and publicized by unknown hackers to Wikileaks, exposing the DNC’s tactics to hurt Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ chances at winning the nomination, among other corrupt practices.

In-kind donations of free services to influence political outcomes are banned by current finance laws. And while there is a legitimate business interest for Microsoft to secure their email services, it could open the door for larger violations. Critics claim that if Microsoft was so concerned about security issues, they would offer increased security for all customers, rather than specifically give special benefits to political parties. In an increasingly connected world, access to online information has a massive effect on the political landscape, since many rely on internet research to learn more about current issues.

It should also be noted that certain so-called “security measures” can be used directly as a means of political contribution to a particular cause. For example, Facebook and Twitter have been known to modify trending topics by selectively removing or promoting voices on current issues. Accusations have been leveled against Youtube as well for “de-monetizing” political opponents by arbitrarily cutting off their payments to oppositional video creators from ad revenue, while actively promoting videos of their political allies for free, regardless of how popular they are. Even Google has been accused by private studies to deliver biased results for questions about political candidates. Many have argued that these are in-kind donations themselves.

It’s already well-known that big tech companies have a very left-wing workplace culture from incidents such as the firing of Google engineer James Damore, as well as the promotional materials they show to users. Tech companies, in particular, were also very politically active in Net Neutrality, broadcasting their political arguments to their platforms of billions of people.

Setting campaign finance policy requires walking a fine line between allowing private expression, including those of businesses, and preventing the rich and powerful from eliminating voices they dislike.

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