Federal campaigns and national party committees can accept free security services from the Microsoft Corporation after a recent Federal Election Commission ruling.
But one watchdog group called it an unprecedented opening for corporations looking to influence lawmakers and skirt campaign finance laws.
The ruling, approved by a 4-0 vote at a commission hearing Thursday, noted the potentially “severe and long-term” damage to the Microsoft brand if a campaign were breached by hackers, especially considering the, “public scrutiny regarding foreign attempts to influence U.S. elections.”
Federal election law prohibits companies from providing free services to lawmakers. But the FEC would make an exception in this case, it ruled, because Microsoft would be acting out of business interests and not trying to curry favor. The decision also noted that Microsoft has promised to offer the services “on a non-partisan basis.”
Opponents of the change said the exception was too broad.
“If that is the standard, then pretty much any corporation could give anything to a candidate, because they always do it for business reasons,” said Adav Noti, an attorney for the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center and a former associate general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. “It’s a loophole you could drive a truck through.”
Noti said the FEC has denied similar requests from other corporations.
“If I were a campaign finance lawyer who had corporate clients, I would certainly alert them to this and see what they could do with it,” he said.
A Microsoft spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.
Microsoft is among a handful of tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, that have begun offering below-market-rate services to candidates and lawmakers who could regulate their companies, the Campaign Legal Center pointed out in a letter to the FEC filed before its ruling.
Microsoft has spent over $6.5 million on campaign contributions and over $13.6 million on lobbying during the 2018 election cycle, according to Opensecrets.org.
Under its accepted proposal, Microsoft would provide a free package of “enhanced account security protections,” to “election-sensitive,” customers, including federal, state and local candidate committees, national and state political party committees, campaign technology vendors, think tanks and “democracy advocacy nonprofits,” according to an outline the company provided to the FEC.
Participants, who would have to opt in, would receive extra training, guidance, technical support, and notification of potential security threats, among other services.
The company argued that it has “strong business considerations” for giving away such services to the selected clients. It cited its desire to increase market share among “election-sensitive entities and organizations,” which are often not-for-profit entities with fewer resources to spend on cybersecurity than for-profit customers.