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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For decades, America's tech giants scaled up quietly — paying little attention to the cities and towns that hosted them. Now, they're answering to the communities that have felt the most acute effects of their explosive growth.

Why it matters: Much of the backlash against Big Tech is occurring on a national — or even global — scale, but the giants are realizing some of their toughest and priciest fights are in their hometowns.

"Some of these tech companies with this 'move fast, break things' ethos have learned that when you get involved with local politics, your brand can suffer," says Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.

  • Think how New York's backlash against Amazon HQ2 drove the company out of town.
  • San Francisco passed a homelessness tax on businesses.
  • Mountain View passed a per employee "head tax" aimed at Google, which will end up costing the company millions every year.

Local politics are becoming too costly for the companies to ignore, says Margaret O'Mara, a tech historian at the University of Washington. "They're now finally playing in local politics. It's becoming important not only to their public image, but also their bottom line."

What's happening: Amazon has put $1.4 million into the Seattle City Council race this year. It's "a staggering sum for a city election, let alone from a company that was M.I.A. in local politics for years," the New York Times' Karen Weise writes. Just four years ago, Amazon spent $25,000.

  • “We believe it is critical that our hometown has a City Council that is focused on pragmatic solutions to our shared challenges in transportation, homelessness, climate change and public safety," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

Money in San Francisco's elections is reaching new heights, too. The past two City Hall elections saw $7 million and $8 million in spending, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

Tech giants are also putting money into local projects — often trying to address housing and transit crises fueled by their own growth.

  • Just this week, Facebook committed $1 billion for Bay Area housing. Google made the same pledge earlier this year.
  • Microsoft pledged $500 million for affordable housing in Seattle.
  • Amazon has given money to address homelessness in Seattle as well as Arlington, Virginia, the home of its second headquarters.

But, but, but: "Politics is not a vending machine," says Lee Drutman, a scholar at New America. And in some cases, spending too much can work against tech giants.

  • In Seattle, progressive candidates are latching onto Amazon's big political contribution as a talking point. Kshama Sawant, who is the most vocal anti-Amazon Seattle council member, tweeted, “EMERGENCY! Amazon just dropped a $1 million bomb on Seattle elections — we can’t let Jeff Bezos buy City Hall!”
  • And in San Francisco, Juul garnered widespread backlash after it spent millions to support a ballot measure overturning a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes. The company later pulled support for the measure.

What to watch: As the techlash intensifies, eyes are on federal regulators, but local and state lawmakers will be in the crux of the action, too, O'Mara says. "We're in for a really interesting 5–10 years in which this issue of tech regulation is going to be a really defining political question — at every level."

Go deeper: Cities, not Congress, are clipping Big Tech's wings

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.

Biden Cabinet confirmation schedule: When to watch hearings

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The first hearings for President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominations begin on Tuesday, with testimony from his picks to lead the departments of State, Homeland and Defense.

Why it matters: It's been a slow start for a process that usually takes place days or weeks earlier for incoming presidents. The first slate of nominees will appear on Tuesday before a Republican-controlled Senate, but that will change once the new Democratic senators-elect from Georgia are sworn in.

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