Group backed by tech giants claims thousands of members. Many have never heard of it.

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The four-year-old group listed about 5,000 small businesses in its membership directory before it removed that document from its website late last month. When POLITICO contacted 70 of those businesses, 61 said they were not members of the group and many added that they were not familiar with the organization.

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“We aren’t associated with them,” said Kris Naidu, CEO of Zeacon, a Seattle-based software company listed in the directory.

“We are neither a member nor have I heard of them until just now,” said Jack Gannon, co-owner of YBR Publishing in Ridgeland, S.C., which was also listed.

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“I have an issue with anybody using my name without my permission,” said Susan Kadar, owner of Your Computer Friends in Wilmington, N.C. (also on the list) “They can’t speak for me.”

Lawmakers hoping to regulate the tech companies called the council’s approach dishonest.

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When asked about 3C’s representation of their membership, Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, the top Republican on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said, “The fact that Big Tech’s so-called grassroots support is fraudulent doesn’t surprise me.”

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“This news is one more brick in the wall of a lobbying campaign that would have embarrassed Big Tobacco in its heyday,” added Buck, who is sponsoring legislation that would crack down on the tech giants’ power over the economy.

The council, which goes by the nickname 3C, claims on its website to represent “thousands of digitally empowered small business members from across the country.” Rob Retzlaff, the executive director of 3C, said all of the businesses listed as members have signed up for at least one of 3C’s campaigns, such as in-person events, email lists or the group’s small business resources.

Amazon declined to comment on questions about the group. Google spokesperson José Castañeda did not respond to questions about whether 3C is using the names of small businesses without their permission but said Google encourages “small businesses and the organizations that represent them” to raise concerns about antitrust legislation moving through Congress.

Lobbyists for Amazon and Google have mobilized an army of small businesses as well as users who rely on their platforms to discourage Congress from passing bills aimed at curtailing their power. Hundreds of small business owners have signed petitions, met with members of Congress or contacted congressional offices to share their concerns. 3C has played a significant role in that advocacy, facilitating dozens of meetings with small business owners and their representatives in Congress.

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Google and Amazon lobbyists have argued in conversations with lawmakers and staff that the House and Senate antitrust bills, particularly the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S. 2992 (117), could harm the digital tools that small to medium-sized businesses use every day.

That bill, which has the broadest base of support in both chambers, would prevent tech companies from discriminating against their rivals. It would ensure that the tech giants “actually face real competition and are investing in the next great product instead of the next great astroturf campaign,” House antitrust subcommittee Chair David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said in a statement.

3C says it aims to “promote small businesses’ access to essential digital technology and tools,” according to its website. But POLITICO’s findings raise questions about how many small businesses the group actually represents.

In response to questions about the membership directory, 3C said all the businesses listed there had signed up for membership by agreeing to “terms and conditions” at the bottom of forms that state their name would be used in a membership directory. “3C membership is free and the barrier is very low,” said Retzlaff. (After a POLITICO reporter began contacting businesses listed as members in late February, the directory was removed from the 3C website in order to update it, according to Retzlaff.)

But the businesses said they did not not know their sign-up would endorse a pro-tech legislative agenda.

“I signed up for what looks like a webinar and now it seems like they’re using my name like I’m for their policies,” said Katherine Watier Ong, owner of the digital marketing company WO Strategies in McLean, Va. “I read quickly when I signed up — ‘digital marketing,’ ‘positive for small businesses,’ yeah, sure,” she said. “But you dig deeper and say, ‘Wait, they don’t want to regulate Google at all — that’s horrible.’ I think both Google and Facebook should be reined in.”

Naidu, the CEO of Zeacon, said his company’s technology competes against Facebook and Google, “so the fact that they’re watching us that closely is kind of creepy.” He did not remember “signing up” at all.

Nearly all of the businesses contacted by POLITICO said they had never heard of the Connected Commerce Council.

Dozens of business owners said they were frustrated that the Connected Commerce Council was using their name without their explicit permission.

The small business owners that POLITICO contacted said they were not aware that they were listed as members of the group. Some said they did not know that signing up for an event or campaign indicated they were in effect endorsing 3C’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.

Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the anti-monopoly group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, called 3C’s use of the businesses’ names “stunning.” Mitchell’s group helps mobilize small businesses in favor of regulating the major tech companies, most prominently Amazon. “It’s apparent that Amazon and Google think they can take whatever they want from small business owners, including using their names for their own lobbying agenda,” Mitchell said.

Retzlaff said membership only requires someone to fill out an online form stating their name, the name of their business and their contact information. That includes when people sign up for free business tools or Facebook advertising campaigns.

“People sign up for free resources all the time,” he said. As for the business owners who are not familiar with 3C, he said, “a majority of these people might have come through campaigns or signed up back in the day in 2019 and 2020.”

In a subsequent email to POLITICO, Retzlaff said, “I’d like you to just ask yourself: If it were not for organizations like ours, would anyone in Congress actually be asking small businesses about how big tech antitrust legislation would impact them?”

3C’s spokesperson put POLITICO in touch with a variety of active members across the country, including Frankie DiCarlantonio, owner of the Scaffidi Restaurant Group in Steubenville, Ohio. DiCarlantonio said he joined 3C for a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in 2019 to warn that tech regulation could “harm the technological ecosystem.” DiCarlantonio said he understands that the group is an “outlet” for Amazon and Google “to represent the little guy when it comes to those utilizing their platforms.”

Alan Meyer, owner of Mom & Pop’s Kettle Korn Stop in Paxton, Ill., said he has worked with 3C to tell policymakers about his experiences with e-commerce. Meyer said the group contacted him and invited him to the 2019 trip to Washington where small business owners spoke to lawmakers and staff.

Meyer added that he has “his doubts about Google” and that he is “sorry” that Amazon and Google fund the group. “However, the funds [for advocacy] aren’t going to come from small businesses,” Meyer said. “We’re getting hit.”

Retzlaff said the tech companies’ funding helps 3C “launch new programs, new research, different courses and different webinars and skills workshops.”

He added that the group took down the membership directory last month in part because it had not been updated to reflect the new members that have joined 3C since the beginning of the pandemic. He said 3C now has about 16,000 members.

Mitchell, the antitrust advocate with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said she worries that the voices of “real small business groups” will get lost in the shuffle as 3C and other lobbying shops inundate lawmakers with outreach. But she added she’s cautiously optimistic their efforts won’t work.

“The thing to remember is that members of Congress and their staff aren’t dumb,” Mitchell said. “They see right through this.”



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