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Big tech now spends more than €97m annually lobbying the European Union (EU), making it the biggest lobby sector in Europe ahead of pharmaceuticals, fossil fuels and finance, according to a report on how technology companies are trying to influence the bloc.
In the 48-page report – titled The Lobby network: Big Tech’s web of influence in the EU – Corporate Europe Observatory and LobbyControl profile the lobbying power of the tech sector, mapping 612 companies, groups and business associations and how they are attempting to shape the bloc’s policies towards them.
“The aim of Big Tech and its intermediaries seems to make sure there are as few hard regulations as possible – for example those that tackle issues around privacy, disinformation, and market distortion – to preserve their profit margins and business model,” said the report.
“If new rules can’t be blocked, then they aim to at least water them down. In recent years these firms started embracing regulation in public, yet continue pushing back against behind closed doors. There are some differences between what different tech firms want in terms of EU policy, but the desire to remain ‘unburdened’ by urgently needed regulations is shared by most of the large platforms.”
The report found that despite a wide variety of active players, the tech sector’s lobbying efforts are dominated by just a handful of firms, with just 10 companies responsible for almost a third of the total tech lobby spend. This includes, in ascending order, Vodafone, Qualcomm, Intel, IBM, Amazon, Huawei, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google; which collectively spent more than €32m to get their voices heard in the EU.
“Although the combined lobbying power of the whole sector is very high, lobby expenses vary greatly from € 5,000 to €5,750,000. Aside from the notable big spenders, most companies’ lobby budgets are at the lower end of this range: 75% have a budget lower than €200,000. Of these 75%, the bottom 25% spend less than €5,000,” it said, adding there is also a geographical imbalance between which companies are spending the most.
“Out of all the companies lobbying the EU on digital policy, 20% are US based, though this number is likely even higher. Less than 1% have head offices in China or Hong Kong. This implies Chinese firms have so far not invested in EU lobbying quite as heavily as their US counterparts.”
Digital economy regulations
The report further noted that most of the tech sector’s lobbying activity is focused around the EU’s planned digital economy regulations; namely the Digital Services (DSA) and Digital Markets (DMA) Acts, which both aim to curb the overarching power of increasingly dominant technology giants that operate in digital markets.
It found that of the 271 meetings the European Commission (EC) had with external groups since late 2019, 202 took place either with companies and their trade associations, while only 52 were with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), consumer organisations, and trade unions.
This means 75% of meetings about the EU’s digital services legislation package were with industry.
“The rising lobby firepower of big tech and the digital industry as a whole mirrors the sectors’ huge and growing role in society. It is remarkable and should be a cause of concern that the platforms can use this firepower to ensure their voices are heard – over countervailing and critical voices – in the debate over how to construct new rules for digital platforms,” said the report.
However, it added that technology companies are not just lobbying individually, and are also collectively carrying out these efforts through business and trade associations. The largest of these groups in terms of lobby spend are DigitalEurope, DOT Europe, and BSA – the Software Alliance.
While DigitalEurope spent €1.25m, DOT Europe and BSA both spent €500,000 on lobby activities.
“In comparison to the top ten tech giants, the lobby expenses of the associations do not seem to be particularly high. But the business associations spend much more than the bottom 75% of the companies in the digital industry do,” it said.
Lobbying and campaign contributions
In March 2021, an analysis by consumer advocacy group Public Citizen found that Facebook and Amazon are spending more on lobbying and campaign contributions than any other companies in the US, including those in the arms and telecommunications sectors that have traditionally been the highest political spenders.
That report also noted that Big Tech’s increased political spending only represents one piece of the “influence-peddling” puzzle, citing the funding of think tanks and academics who may research, advocate and publish in favour of Big Tech companies without necessarily disclosing their benefactors as a further cause for concern.
Responding to the Lobby Network report’s findings, Sarah Chander, a senior policy advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi), told Computer Weekly that “the disproportionate access of Big Tech is plain to see for those of us advocating for legislation that defends the rights of ordinary people.”
She added that in policy areas like artificial intelligence (AI), “tech representatives have been given unparalleled platforms to lobby for de-regulation, vastly jeopardising the work of civil society that call for substantive laws to limit harmful impact of AI, like surveillance and structural discrimination.”
Read more about the tech sector’s lobbying and influence
- Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, asked then chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne to be “even more active and vocal” in his concerns about European data protection legislation, and to “really help shape the proposals”, during a lobbying campaign to influence EU policy.
- Campaigners are urging the UK government to resist pressure from the US tech lobby to place limits on how technology companies should be regulated in any US-UK trade deal.
- Could the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic further consolidate surveillance capitalist practices and enterprises? Author Shoshana Zuboff warns Computer Weekly it is possible.
Chander and other digital civil rights experts previously told Computer Weekly, in reaction to the publication of the EC’s draft Artificial Intelligence Act, that its focus on a creating a risk-based, market-led approach – replete with self-assessments, transparency procedures and technical standards – would fall short of being able to protect people’s fundamental rights.
They claimed the EC’s regulatory proposal is stacked in favour of organisations that develop and deploy AI technologies, which are essentially being tasked with box-ticking exercises, while ordinary people are offered little in the way of protection or redress.
Alexandra Geese, a German Member of the European Parliament (MEP), said in response to the lobbying report that it shows “clear evidence of the disproportionate influence” big tech has over the political process in Europe.
“It is unacceptable how tech companies dominate the public debate on digital legislation, especially DSA/DMA, through their direct access to the European Commission and legislators, as well as through think tanks and academic institutions funded by them,” she told Computer Weekly.
“Seemingly ready to settle for legislation and to cooperate with the authorities, they steer the debate towards topics that don't question their business model. They frame the debate: in the last weeks we have been observing a huge ad campaign claiming that small businesses thrive thanks to their services, when actually it is common knowledge that local commerce has been severely impacted by digital marketplaces and startups are gobbled up or aggressively targeted by Big Tech as soon as they gain traction.
“We need more independent experts in academia. Even for lawmakers it is difficult to find expert advice by academic institutions that not funded by tech. This is not in the best interest of our citizens.”