After more than a decade of little to no rules and an ethos of self-regulation which has allowed free action, tech giants are all eventually in the eye of regulators around the world. It is no surprise then that tech companies turn to one of their preferred tools – lobbying the regulators -, fighting, therefore, to maintain the status quo by.
In Europe, one remarkable attempt to regulate big tech is the Digital Services Act which could have a significant impact on the way platforms function – from the ads they are able to show, to what they can do with the data they collect and their responsibility to remove what will be deemed to be “illegal content”.
Big tech companies are responding in an equally remarkable manner, with a type of lobbying that is characterised by 1) overspending; 2) aggressivity; 3) levering expertise and brand recognition, and 4) opacity in terms of their funding.
First, there has been an increase in spending. Corporate European Observatory unveiled that Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook have spent together more than 21 million Euros in lobbying in Brussels in 2019 with Google being responsible for more than a third of that sum. The situation is similar on the other side of the Atlantic, where the same players spent over 20 million dollars in lobbying just on the first half of this year. Facebook and Amazon alone having each spent 17 million the year before.
With more money, the arsenal of lobbyists also becomes wider, and in part, more aggressive and insidious. In January 2020, Euronews published a story about Facebook offering free coffee in Brussels, in an attempt to improve its visibility and public image, following growing public scrutiny in recent years. Yet most of their efforts are not always as public. Typically their lobbyists keep these big brand names out of the conversation to the point that an MEP has argued that sometimes people do not even realise that those whom they are talking to have been engaged to do work in the name of these corporations.
New levels of aggressivity can also be shown from leaked internal documents from Google, which reveal their tactic of sowing conflict inside the European Commission in an effort to stop the adoption of the Digital Services Act. This level of interfering with policymaking can certainly be labelled as an effort to undermine democracy. Another concerning practice that has been adopted by these players is that of creating “fake citizen groups” – often referred to as astroturfing – as discussed by Margarida Silva on our latest podcast episode.
Yet, there is more that makes big tech lobbying qualitatively different than that practised by other industries. These companies leverage their expertise by showing off their epistemic primacy – the message being “we know best how the technology works, let us worry about it and we promise we will keep you protected”. This can be seen best in artificial intelligence. Both Microsoft and Google have released their own sets of “ethical principles” guiding their work, trying to pre-empt policymakers or at least forcing them to take those into account. Microsoft has also used its principles to reply to the Commission’s consultation on AI.
But when it comes to expertise, tech giants are not only trying to leverage their own. They are also mobilising the expertise of think tanks, through financial support. What is problematic however is the lack of transparency in doing so. What we see therefore is an attempt by these companies not only to sway policymakers in their favour, using the usual instruments, but also trying to buy public opinion either directly, using their own names and branding, or other organisations that have gained trust through their work. One clear example is the research on antitrust, which these companies have exponentially funded in recent years. Another is a study funded by Google which claimed that the Digital Services Act could end up costing 2 million jobs and billions in lost GDP.
Considering the amount of firepower they dispose of, it is perhaps not surprising that these methods seem to be successful. An example of this success is the fact that the Commission has organised a meeting with representatives of a few of these companies to discuss the new rules contained in the Digital Services Act, a few days before it will be released, without any civil society actors in the room. At a time when significant decisions are about to be made, which will have a significant impact on tech players, leaving the voice of civil society out, and only taking account one dimension of concerns – already very well known given the effectiveness of these companies in replying to consultation and lobbying – is certainly concerning.
The Good Lobby’s mission is to promote lobbying as a legitimate and needed democratic practice. Consequently, it is advocating for a responsible, sustainable exercise of corporate political power.
If lobbying is used aggressively and in an opaque manner, this should first be made observable and second produce consequences. We, therefore, call on the EU institutions to proactively embrace consultation practices ensuring that the voices of the citizens and of the civil society are not lost among or shut down by the voices of the big tech lobby. We also call on think tanks to be transparent about their funding.
The policy debate on data and tech is dominated by big tech players. For Europe’s Digital Decade to be a success, EU policymakers must understand that it is no longer acceptable to only listen to one side of the debate and that they must use the tools available to them to level the participatory playing field and uphold the principle of political equality as enshrined in Article 9 TEU. As recently argued in Professor Alemanno’s latest paper, this principle must be interpreted as requiring the institutions to proactively ensure that everyone is given equal access to the policy process and enact power-shifting reforms to attain this process-based goal.