•A big-tech/arms makers coalition is hyping the threat from Russia and China to stave off government regulation, and more.
By Eli Clifton
It should come as no surprise that Facebook, alongside many big tech companies, opposes anti-monopoly regulatory efforts, expanding antitrust rules, and strengthening privacy and user rights. But Facebook has taken its advocacy against congressional efforts to regulate the industry to new heights: it has now partnered with the weapons industry to scare Americans about China and Russia.
In 2020, Facebook, which changed its name to Meta in October, 2021, launched American Edge, a political advocacy group claiming to represent “a coalition dedicated to the proposition that American innovators are an essential part of U.S. economic health, national security and individual freedoms.”
“With direct financial ties to the Chinese Communist Party, many Chinese companies present threats to America’s national security but some Washington politicians are pushing for new laws that will empower Alibaba, Tik Tok and other Chinese companies at the expense of America’s tech innovators,” says an American Edge YouTube ad from January that ran between 100,000 and one million times in the greater Washington, DC area. Edge spent over $1.4 million running that ad and similar ones on Facebook.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Edge quickly leveraged Russia’s devastating attack on Ukraine to justify an anti-regulatory agenda.
“As Russia plows forward in its invasion of Ukraine, the stakes cannot be understated, nor can the need for U.S. lawmakers to get it right be more urgent,” said a March 30 statement, which concluded with a swipe at members of Congress who support regulatory reforms.
“Efforts to push anti-innovation legislation that is rushed and short-sighted could undo America’s global competitive edge in technology, endanger our national security, and hand China and other authoritarian regimes a permanent geopolitical advantage – to the detriment of the United States, democracy, and the entire free world,” the statement concluded.
Facebook has been the face of Edge, credited by The Washington Post as the organization’s “critical, primary driver,” and media coverage widely credited Facebook with leading the coalition of free market, anti-regulatory and pro-tech groups. The group, to date, has invested nearly $1.5 million in Facebook, Instagram, Google, and YouTube ads warning about China’s threat to the United States and blaming anti-trust regulations for weakening U.S. national security.
A March 9 Facebook post by the group drew a direct link between the coalition’s business interests and the war in Ukraine, writing, “As Russia continues to attack Ukraine, the stakes cannot be understated, nor can the need for U.S. lawmakers to get it right be more urgent.”
Edge concluded with a clear effort to use the war in Ukraine to push back on potential regulatory action, writing, “Pursuing laws that would undermine American innovation will offer a leg up to techno-autocracies and embolden their pursuits.”
The Edge coalition’s efforts to profit from the war in Ukraine and tensions with China isn’t going over well with anti-monopoly advocates.
“On its face, big tech firms are trying to leverage fear and the authority national security arguments tend to have in the national discourse to violate antitrust law and engage in a host of irresponsible and dangerous behavior,” said Sarah Miller, executive director and founder of the American Economic Liberties Project, a group promoting the anti-monopoly movement and strengthening anti-trust regulation.
“I don’t think we should listen to a set of corporations who have engaged in likely criminal activity,” added Miller, referencing allegations that Facebook and Google engaged in bid rigging against advertisers and Facebook committed criminal fraud against investors.
But as unsavory as Facebook’s business practices may be, the Edge coalition has a nearly completely invisible partner with far more stigma attached: the weapons industry, whose board members and executives advise the group and whose think tank and advocacy fundees are members of the coalition.
Lockheed Martin, whose annual Pentagon contracts are one-and-a-half-times the combined budgets of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, funded at least two of the coalition’s members: Lexington institute and Women Impacting Public Policy. “The coalition and its members will tell the story about the positive impact technology and innovation have on America’s economy and businesses, particularly small ones, and how they enhance freedom of expression and our nation’s overall security,” according to Edge.
Edge’s narrative that China’s threat to U.S. national security necessitates inaction by antitrust regulators is nearly identical to the argument made by James Taiclet, Lockheed’s CEO. Taiclet told investors last year that antitrust regulators should “look through the lens of great power competition and how we compare to the defense industrial base certainly of China” when they assess whether to allow Lockheed’s acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne, the only major independent supplier of solid-fuel rocket engines in the United States.
In February, Edge CEO Doug Kelly echoed similar language slamming regulators for opposing the merger.
“[C]iting opposition by the FTC, Lockheed abandoned its proposed takeover of propulsion manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne, a $4.4 billion deal that would have greatly increased Lockheed’s hypersonic weapons’ capabilities,” a statement published on the group’s website said. “These types of ‘vertical’ mergers, between companies that do not compete in the same markets, typically raise no genuine competitive concerns. Just ten days earlier, Russia and China announced a new partnership against the U.S., seeking to nudge America aside as the world’s sole superpower.”
That defense of Lockheed might not be completely coincidental. The weapons industry is positioned to shape the group’s national security positions, a central component of Edge’s messaging.
The Facebook-led group’s “National Security Advisory Board” includes Frances Townsend, who also serves on the board of Leonardo DRS, a weapons firm that manufactures military aircraft, heavy equipment transporters, and drones.
She is joined by Lockheed board member retired general Joseph F. Dunford and former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who serves as an advisor to Beacon Global Strategies, a firm founded in 2013 to provide consulting services to defense contractors.
Until last year, the advisory board also included James Stavridis, a retired admiral and currently an executive at the Carlyle Group, a major investor in weapons firms and the defense industry.
None of the board members’ professional ties to the weapons industry are disclosed in their Edge bios but their economic interests appear to be sprinkled across Edge’s work products.
“It does show who [big tech companies] are willing to partner with to meet their objectives and that doesn’t seem to be a very savory partnership,” said Miller. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that Lockheed and Facebook would be joining forces to forestall or smear antitrust efforts across the board.”
A February 2021 report by Edge, authored by Stavridis and Townsend, promoted industries with which the two have financial ties while providing no disclosure of their financial interests in the policies promoted by Edge.
“[T]he U.S. has fallen behind China in technologies including facial and voice technology, 5G deployment, and the commercial drone market,” warned Stavridis and Townsend, who went on to recommend a number of tech and weapons industry friendly policies.
While Edge and its weapons industry advisers might not highlight their linked efforts to fan the flames of great power competition, Facebook made waves last month when it appeared the platform was changing its rules by allowing Facebook and Instagram users in Eastern Europe and Caucasus to call for violence against Russian soldiers, a clear deviation from Facebook’s explicit policy of banning “threats that could lead to death,” a policy exception that appeared to be more aligned with taking sides in a war rather than discouraging violence.
Indeed, by all outward appearances, Facebook and its Edge partners in the weapons industry are eager to fan the flames of great power competition with Russia and China and convert Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting humanitarian and economic costs, into blocking regulatory action against big tech and weapons firms, an effort that might create greater profits for some of the largest tech and weapons companies in the United States.
Edge didn’t respond to a request for a list of their funders, provide comment on why board members’ professional affiliations with weapons manufacturers were undisclosed or explain the nature of the coalition’s relationship with the weapons industry.
Credit | Responsible Statecraft