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Big Tech, the top lobbyists in the EU

With 97 million euros per year, Big Tech is the largest lobbying sector in the EU. With the sector's increasing financial power, its political influence has increased.

Published: May 9, 2022, 11:47 am

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    The largest technology companies (Big Tech) have recently spent more than 97 million euros per year lobbying the institutions of the EU to steer new legal regulations in their favour. According to the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), an organization that studies lobbying in the EU, the digital giants are the sector with the most lobbying spending, ahead of big pharma, the oil industry, finance (12 million euros), the chemical industry (17,75 million euros) or the automotive industry (9,85 million euros).

    According to the CEO, while over 600 organizations are lobbying the EU on the subject of digital economic policy, it is dominated by just a few corporations: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Huawei, Amazon, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm, Vodafone. These companies represent 31 percent of the expenditure (32 out of 97 million euros). Other significant lobbying contributions are made by companies in the digital platform economy: the budgets of Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, Spotify, Alibaba and eBay are between 600 000 and 900 000 euros.

    The top lobbyists work behind the scenes

    The high spending gives Big Tech firms privileged access to policy makers. Their representatives held 271 meetings with high officials of the EU administration, namely the EU Commission, the EU Parliament and the EU Council. Lobbying is also often done indirectly, for example via think tanks (e.g. the European Center for International Political Economy, which is funded by Google), consulting and PR firms (e.g. FleishmanHillard), law firms, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), industry associations or academic institutions .

    According to the CEO, lobbyists from the six largest tech platforms and IT infrastructure companies have met with the EU Commission since December 2019. Google met 46 times, Facebook and Microsoft 40 times each, Amazon 20 times and Apple and Huawei 14 times each. That works out to 174 contacts for the top group alone, or over three contacts per week.

    The danger of lobbyists

    The dangers that emanate from this are broad: Combating a narrow definition of “misinformation”, censorship on the Internet, general surveillance of the population and monopoly efforts undermine democratic principles, are sad examples of too much influence wielded by these corporations.

    Another example is Big Tech’s lobbying campaign to prevent restrictions on its invasive, profitable advertising surveillance model, a core business of digital companies like Google and Facebook.

    In this model, data traces of Internet users are recorded and profiles are created, which can then be used in a targeted manner – from car advertising to the manipulation of voters’ preferences. The Harvard economist Shoshana Zuboff criticized this model for systematically violating the private sphere of citizens without their knowledge and for being based on a monopoly.

    Zuboff’s work is the source of many original concepts including “surveillance capitalism”, “instrumentarian power”, “the means of behavior modification”, “information civilization”, the “individualization of consumption” and “the coup from above”.

    Many issues that plague contemporary society including the assault on privacy and the so-called “privacy paradox”, behavioral targeting, fake news, ubiquitous tracking, legislative and regulatory failure, algorithmic governance, social media addiction, abrogation of human rights, democratic destabilization, and more are reinterpreted and explained through the lens of surveillance capitalism’s economic and social imperatives.

    Big Tech has intensified lobbying

    Over the past decade, Big Tech has steadily increased its influence, replacing previously dominant lobbying sectors such as finance and big pharma, according to CEO. In 2013, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon spent 7,3 million euros (a third of today’s amount). With the exception of Microsoft, the budgets were all under one million euros.

    In a year-on-year comparison from 2021 to 2020, some of the largest technology companies have increased their lobbying budgets in connection with recent negotiations on legal provisions (Digital Services Act, Digital Markets Act) affecting the technology and digital sector, most notably Apple.

    According to the CEO, Apple ‘s main concern was to fight regulatory measures that could loosen its control over the App Store or Apple’s mobile operating system. For this, the big tech group hired the Atlantic Council think tank, which invited EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders to an unofficial dinner with Apple. The whole thing happened in September 2021, when the EU Parliament and the EU Council were still discussing their positions on the Digital Markets Act.

    Critics of the legislation have said it could break encryption for messaging, making products less useful for users, and it provides little clarity on how companies should be regulated. The final text will drastically affect consumers across the globe. Despite this, the discussions among the entities concerned took place behind closed doors.

    “A new set of lobby documents released by the European Commission and Swedish Government via freedom of information requests, shows intense corporate lobbying to shape the final stage EU discussions of new tech rule,” the CEO warned. The lobbyists have tried to limit surveillance ads and expand external scrutiny of how the platforms’ systems amplify or demote content.

    The International Center for Law and Economics is worried that the DMA “appears to blur the line between regulation and antitrust by mixing their respective features and goals”.

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