Corporate Influence

In a polarized political climate, companies are increasingly moving to influence local, state, and national policies. Their growing influence raises questions about the relationship between producers and consumers, the capitalist goals behind politicizing business, and the political power that major corporations have in America today.

How It's Developing

Over the last two decades, the companies of Silicon Valley have increasingly gained power in national politics as huge funders of think tanks and lobbyists, with tech giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft putting millions of dollars each year into political influence. [1] As innovators and entrepreneurs, tech companies have particular concerns that they have tried to address in Washington. A recent survey by political scientists at Stanford University found that the political leanings of tech leaders could help push lawmakers, particularly Democrats, to the left on many social and economic issues, such as universal health care, open immigration, and higher taxes on the wealthy. [2] However, these leaders are also very suspicious of governmental regulation in business, especially when it comes to labor and the influence of both private and public-sector unions. [3] During the Trump administration, tech companies, along with other types of corporations, have started voicing their concerns publicly, trying to influence the political system directly, and making changes in their corporate policies with politics in mind.

Immediately after the Trump administration banned travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries in early 2017, many tech leaders, such as Apple’s CEO Tim Cook and eBay’s founder Pierre Omidyar, spoke out against the executive order and argued that “limiting immigration hurts employees and innovation.” [4] Days after the travel ban was announced, over two thousand employees at Google offices across the world staged walkouts in protest; Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, who was a refugee himself, joined the protest in California, remarking that the issue was “a debate about fundamental values.” [5] In support, Google created a crisis fund that matched its employees’ $2 million donation to pro-immigrant groups—the ACLU, Immigrant Legal Resource Center, International Rescue Committee, and the UN Refugee Agency—and their efforts were mirrored by tech executives at Twitter, Uber, and Lyft. [6] When Washington state filed a lawsuit against the president over the travel ban, Amazon, Expedia, and Microsoft pledged their support for the state’s efforts. [7] Ninety-four tech companies, including Google, Facebook, and Apple, also filed an amicus brief in Washington state that protested the executive order. [8] However, the Supreme Court upheld the travel ban in 2018, and only a few tech executives of the many that initially fought the ban commented on the decision, leading some critics to question tech’s motives behind the battle over immigration policy and the degree to which they are willing to oppose the national administration. [9]

Technology companies again found themselves moved to respond to actions by the Trump administration in 2017. This time, they fought attempts to pass discriminatory laws that affect transgender individuals. When the administration repealed guidelines that allowed students to use school facilities that correlated with their gender identity, Google and Apple issued statements that denounced the decision and expressed their dedication to equal rights and protections for all. [10] The following week, Apple led a group of fifty-four companies, including Amazon, Dropbox, Spotify, Microsoft, and Twitter, that signed an amicus brief in support of a civil rights case filed by Gavin Grimm, a transgender student who claimed that his Virginia high school violated Title IX by refusing him access to the school’s boys’ bathroom. [11] Later that spring, the CEOs of Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, along with ten others, urged Governor Greg Abbott of Texas to resist passing legislation that would have prevented transgender individuals from using bathrooms that corresponded with their gender identities, stating that “discrimination is wrong and it has no place in Texas or anywhere in our country.” [12] Many of these CEOs spoke out again that July when President Trump decided to ban transgender people from serving in the military. [13] Corporate influence can often be effective, especially because, in the cases of Gavin Grimm, the Texas legislature, and Trump’s attempted military ban, the decisions swung in favor of transgender rights. [14]

Later in August 2017, following the attacks at a white supremacist protest in Virginia, where a violent demonstrator drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators, killing a young woman and injuring others, corporations once again entered the national discourse, this time exerting control over their platforms to make their positions clearer. GoDaddy and Google canceled the domains for the Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, where the violent rally was organized; both companies stated that the website violated their terms of service. [15] Reddit and Facebook emulated GoDaddy and Google by banning certain subreddits and pages that engaged in hate speech after the event. [16] Apple Pay and PayPal continued this pattern by disabling their services for multiple websites that sold Neo-Nazi and white nationalist paraphernalia. [17] These actions have placed big technology corporations in precarious positions. As noted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit that focuses on "defending civil liberties in the digital world," in a statement warning against the precedents set by major tech companies in removing sites like The Daily Stormer, "All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country. But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with.” [18] Concerns about freedom of speech will force individuals to confront the power of these corporations to shift political thought.

To protest U.S. President Trump’s remarks regarding Charlottesville that condemned violence on “many sides” during the event, corporate leaders disbanded the president’s Strategic and Policy Forum; in response, President Trump abruptly shut down his Manufacturing Council, where members also resigned due to his statements. [19]

In late July of 2018, YouTube acted against Alex Jones, the founder and host of conspiracy site Infowars, and removed four videos from The Alex Jones Channel that included "violent or graphic content,” imposing a ninety-day ban on Jones from broadcasting live from YouTube. [20] Jones has since found ways to broadcast live to YouTube by hosting content on other channels. Jones was also suspended by Spotify, Apple, and Facebook, where he was banned from using his account for the thirty days after removing four videos from his personal network. [21] Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey criticized the tech community’s censorship and defended Alex Jones’ right to use Twitter, but his company also banned Jones for a week due to violent speech. [22] Though Alex Jones is simply one example, the debate about big tech’s duty to prevent the spread of harmful misinformation or to protect free speech will only become, as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo explained, “messier” as Facebook and other social media corporations begin to take free speech and fact-checking seriously. [23]

Many corporations have also made internal decisions that are clearly meant to positively position themselves in more general sociopolitical, economic, and global debates. Fast food companies have taken an interest in the environment, with companies like McDonald’s announcing intentions to use fully renewable and recyclable materials in their guest packaging. [24] Attempting to take a similar environmentally responsible position, Starbucks reported that they will eliminate plastic straws from over 28,000 stores by 2020 by offering a new strawless lid or straws made from plastic alternatives, though critics have noted that this change will have little effect on the environment, make restaurants less accessible for many disabled people, and continue to fail at making consumers participate in environmentally-responsible practices like using reusable containers. [25] Tech companies have also joined the fight against global warming. Lyft intends to purchase carbon offsets that will make every Lyft ride carbon neutral, following the trend picked up by Google to offset corporate energy usage with renewable energy. [26]

In ways big and small, other companies have taken an interest in income inequality, health care, and accessibility. Amazon has discounted its Prime Membership for individuals with Electronic Benefit cards, which provide funds for government aid programs, and for Medicaid recipients. [27] Apple created thirteen new emojis that represent the experiences of people with disabilities, of which include men and women using a wheelchair or touching their ear, along with standalone icons like a hearing aid or a prosthetic arm. [28] These efforts demonstrate corporate America’s awareness of current issues in society. However, companies continue to lack transparency in explaining the motives behind these corporate decisions.

If corporations seek to curry favor with consumers by means of more progressive stances, they must also contend with the political implications of their business practices. For instance, Amazon recently sold its facial recognition software Rekognition to police departments in Orlando and Oregon’s Washington County, a move that the American Civil Liberties Union and others have criticized as a threat to civil rights because the technology can be used by governments to unjustly target certain communities. [29] Google’s relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense and its Maven program, which uses artificial intelligence to interpret video images and could be used to improve the targeting of drone strikes, fractured Google’s work force, fueled heated internal exchanges, and pushed some employees to resign, leading Google to announce their intention to discontinue the contract. [30] Following the reveal that Facebook acted as a data bank and platform for Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 British Referendum and U.S. Election, CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed the company’s dedication to free expression and to preventing the spread of harmful misinformation, causing critics to claim that the company’s policies are both confusing and politically weak. [31] These instances are reminders that, even though corporate involvement in politics can be beneficial in making social change, their motives are usually first and foremost capitalistic and could therefore harm as easily as help society.

Why It Matters

Because of their roles as educational and public institutions, libraries might interest corporate America as potential places for philanthropy or partner involvement. However, as spaces that serve diverse communities and aim to better society, libraries should consider corporate interest in politics and the public sphere with care and caution while encouraging their patrons to learn about the ethics of different companies.

Tech corporations have demonstrated a philanthropic interest in education, but their generosity can be scrutinized to suggest self-serving interests. Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and other individual tech executives and foundations have donated over $60 million to, a nonprofit that provides coding lessons for students and teachers, develops coding curriculum, and works to establish computer science as a requirement in American classrooms. [32] But as computer science courses for children proliferate—a 2016 Gallup report found that 40% of American schools now offer coding classes—some have noted that teaching kids to code may not fulfill the economic promise of providing higher-paying technology jobs but may actually flood a limited market and drive down future wages for tech companies. [33] Google has specifically taken interest in the American education system by encouraging teachers and administrators to implement their free software, such as Google Docs, Google Classroom, and Gmail, while also providing low-cost Chromebook laptops to school districts; though their apps are free and their computers cheap, Google has received criticism for targeting young people to build lifelong brand commitment and harvest data, so the company can make money for years to come. [34] Librarians will need to keep the potential corporate goals behind philanthropy in mind before accepting donations from tech companies to set up specific programs or use new products.

Most concerning, though, is that tech companies like Google, Netflix, and Facebook have been able to bring programs to public education with very few setbacks. [35] Educators like Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, have expressed worries about this lack of regulation, saying that the companies “have the power to change policy, but no corresponding check on that power…it does subvert the democratic process.” [36] Libraries might be an ideal setting for public discussions about corporate influence in public institutions like schools and how citizens and local governments might regulate corporate control in those spaces.

Educators and nonprofits are trying to teach students and the public about the ethical issues concerning technology. Harvard, MIT, Cornell, NYU, and Stanford have all instituted ethics courses in their computer sciences departments, focusing on topics like artificial intelligence and big data, to teach future technology leaders, coders, and policymakers the consequences that come with innovation—and the University of Texas at Austin intends to make their course, “Ethical Foundations of Computer Science,” a requirement for all computer science majors. [37] Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, recently formed a coalition of technologists called the Center for Humane Technology, whose main goal is to inspire a mass public movement for more ethical technology from major corporations. [38] The Center, along with another tech regulation nonprofit, Common Sense Media, is currently planning an anti-tech addiction lobbying and ad campaign called The Truth About Tech, which will aim at educating teachers, parents, and students about the dangers of heavy social media usage. [39] Libraries might consider hosting similar events or inviting speakers that could teach their users to consider the ethical and personal consequences that come with using certain technologies.

Some members of corporate American have tried to suggest that companies like Amazon should replace libraries, an argument that has been successfully combated and defeated by librarians and members of the public. [40] However, librarians should remain cautious of the subtle ways that corporations might influence libraries by considering a corporation’s politics when using their products. By tweeting updates on Twitter, organizing reading groups through Facebook, or serving Starbucks coffee at their events, libraries might unknowingly politicize themselves due to corporate involvement in national, state, and local politics.

Notes and Resources

[1] “Forget Wall Street—Silicon Valley is the new political power in Washington,” Olivia Solon and Sabrina Siddiqui, The Guardian, September 3, 2017, available from

[2] “Silicon Valley’s Politics: Liberal, With One Big Exception,” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, September 6, 2017, available from

[3] “Silicon Valley’s Politics: Liberal, With One Big Exception,” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, September 6, 2017, available from

[4] “Tech calls Trump immigration ban ‘bigotry’ and ‘un-American,’” Ian Sherr, Terry Collins, and Edward Moyer, CNET, January 30, 2017, available from

[5] “Google employees staged a protest over Trump’s immigration ban,” Casey Newton, The Verge, January 30, 2017, available from

[6] “Some tech executives are matching ACLU donations amid immigration ban protests,” Matthew Lynley, TechCrunch, January 29, 2017, available from


“Google gives $4 million to pro-immigrant causes,” Daniel Cooper, Engadget, January 30, 2017, available from

[7] “Washington state sues Trump over immigration order with support from Amazon and Expedia,” Monica Nickelsburg, GeekWire, January 30, 2017, available from

[8] “Apple, Facebook, Google, and 94 others file opposition to Trump’s immigration ban,” Rich McCormick, The Verge, February 6, 2017, available from


“Tech companies to meet on legal challenge to Trump immigration order,” Dan Levine and Jeffrey Dastin, Reuters, January 30, 2017, available from

[9] “Supreme Court upholds Trump’s travel ban after long battle with states, activists and tech industry,” Monica Nickelsburg, GeekWire, June 26, 2018, available from


“The Tech Industry Is Fighting Trump—and Mostly Losing,” Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic, June 27, 2018, available from


“Supreme Court upholds Trump travel ban: Tech companies weigh in,” Roger Cheng, CNET, June 26, 2018, available from

[10] “Apple, Google and more speak out against Trump revoking trans student protections,” Taylor Hatmaker, TechCrunch, February 23, 2017, available from

[11] “As Supreme Court case nears, tech takes a stand for transgender rights,” Taylor Hatmaker, TechCrunch, March 2, 2017, available from

[12] “Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: Don’t pass discriminatory laws,” Lauren McGaughy, Dallas News, May 2017, available from

[13] “Facebook, Google, Apple CEOs condemn Trump’s transgender military ban,” Phillip Tracey, Daily Dot, July 26, 2017, available from

[14] “The Texas bathroom bill is dead—for now,” Lauren McGaughy, Dallas News, August 15, 2017, available from


“Transgender Student in Bathroom Dispute Wins Court Ruling,” Matt Stevens, New York Times, May 22, 2018, available from


“Ban Was Lifted, but Transgender Recruits Still Can’t Join Up,” Dave Phillips, New York Times, July 5, 2018, available from

[15] “Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer down after losing domain,” Daniel Van Boom and Claire Reilly, CNET, August 14, 2017, available from


“Neo-Nazi group moves to ‘Dark Web’ after website goes down,” Jim Finkle, Reuters, August 15, 2017, available from

[16] “Reddit, Facebook ban neo-Nazi groups after Charlottesville attack,” Morgan Little and Sean Hollister, CNET, August 15, 2017, available from

[17] “Apple Pay Is Cutting Off White Supremacists,” Ryan Mac and Blake Montgomery, BuzzFeed News, August 17, 2017, available from

[18] “The Electronic Frontier Foundation issues a warning to companies banning hate groups,” Jason Abbruzzese, Mashable, August 18, 2017, available from

[19] “Trump abruptly disbands 2 advisory councils after business leaders quit en masse,” Andrew Couts, Daily Dot, August 16, 2017, available from

[20] “Youtube won’t let Alex Jones broadcast live for the next 90 days,” Sean Hollister, CNET, July 26, 2018, available from

[21] “Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify ban Infowars’ Alex Jones,” Alex Hern, The Guardian, August 6, 2018, available from

[22] “Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey doubles down on his criticism of Facebook and YouTube while defending Alex Jones’ right to keep tweeting,” Jake Kanter, Business Insider, August 16, 2018, available from

[23] “Tech Companies Like Facebook and Twitter Are Drawing Lines. It’ll Be Messy,” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, July 25, 2018, available from

[24] “Golden Arches Go Green: McDonald’s Going Fully Sustainable by 2025,” Bill McCool, The Dieline, January 17, 2018, available from

[25] “Starbucks is banning plastic straws by 2020 for a good reason,” Amanda Kooser, CNET, July 9, 2018, available from


“Banning straws won’t save the oceans,” David M. Perry, Pacific Standard, May 31, 2018, available from

[26] “Lyft promises to make all rides carbon neutral,” Mallory Locklear, Engadget, April 19, 2018, available from

[27] “Amazon expands discounted Prime to Medicaid recipients,” Ben Fox Rubin, CNET, March 7, 2018, available from

[28] “Apple proposes new emojis for people with disabilities,” Jessica Dolcourt, CNET, March 23, 2018, available from

[29] “Amazon Pushes Facial Recognition to Police. Critics See Surveillance Risk,” Nick Wingfield, New York Times, May 22, 2018, available from

[30] “How a Pentagon Contract Became an Identity Crisis for Google,” Scott Shane, Cade Metz, and Daisuke Wakabayashi, New York Times, May 30, 2018, available from

[31] “What Stays on Facebook and What Goes? The Social Network Cannot Answer,” Farhad Manjoo, New York Times, July 19, 2018, available from

[32] “How Silicon Valley Pushed Coding Into American Classrooms,” Natasha Singer, New York Times, June 27, 2017, available from

[33] “Tech’s push to teach coding isn’t about kids’ success—it’s about cutting wages,” Ben Tarnoff, The Guardian, September 21, 2017, available from

[34] “How Google Took Over the Classroom,” Natasha Singer, New York Times, May 13, 2017, available from

[35] “The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools,” Natasha Singer, New York Times, June 6, 2017, available from

[36] “The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools,” Natasha Singer, New York Times, June 6, 2017, available from

[37] “Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It,” Natasha Singer, New York Times, February 12, 2018, available from

[38] “Ethical Tech Will Require A Grassroots Revolution,” Issie Lapowsky, Wired, February 8, 2018, available from

[39] “Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built,” Nellie Bowles, New York Times, February 4, 2018, available from

[40] “I’m a librarian. The last thing we need is Silicon Valley ‘disruption,’” Amanda Oliver, Vox, July 26, 2018, available from