NFU Blog

The Big Tech lobby

Move fast and break things, a phrase we have all become familiar with in the context of the tech industry. The motto favoured by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, illustrates how most 2000’s era tech companies saw themselves. As innovators who were ahead of the pack and not playing by the standard rules since these rules slowed progress and breaking them often came at little cost. And in the early years of the new tech boom this was probably true to some extent. For companies like Facebook, Google and Apple, creating new solutions to demands no one previously had realized existed, little consequence materialized as election results were tampered with in the case of Facebook, unfair competition practices were used by Google or terrible working conditions were used to produce ever more iPhones.

Yet, the motto is becoming less true of the way Big Tech sees itself, at least in the way Big Tech wants the rest of us to view them. Gone are the days when they would openly flaunt the rules and after getting caught issue some half-hearted apology. Big tech, in their own narrative wants to play by the rules. So long as those rules do not hamper their business too much and is mostly designed by themselves. And Big Tech is putting big money behind their efforts to make it so.

If we look at the amount of spending that some tech companies are putting into lobbying European legislators, we see a dramatic increase in recent years. Where Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon spent €7.3 million in 2013 on Brussles-based lobbying efforts, thet today spend just shy €22.6 million. That’s a tripling of their expenses to high-priced Brussels lobby firms and interest organisations in less than 10 years. All while the CEO of Alphabet Inc. (parent company of Google) Sundar Pichai in May made the following comment to reporters, ‘Google is committed to complying with local laws and engages constructively with governments as they scrutinise and adopt regulatory frameworks to keep pace with the fast-evolving technology landscape’[1].

Where Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon spent 7.3 million in 2013 on Brussels-based lobbying efforts, they today spend just shy of 22.6 million.

Similarly, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote an article in 2020 titled, ‘Big Tech needs more regulation’[2]. Hence it seems we have entered a time where Big Tech outwardly proclaims to want to comply with stronger regulation for the betterment of the business and communities, while at the same time massively ramping up their efforts to affect the way these same rules are written by legislators.

If we go back to the figures, we see another disparity, since it is not all tech companies that are spending this much on lobbying efforts, but a very select group.

The big spenders are mostly grouped in business associations lobbying on behalf of Big Tech and these associations alone have a lobbying budget that far surpasses that of the bottom 75 per cent of the companies in the digital industry. Meaning, that when legislators meet with digital industry lobbyists, the vision they are mainly being presented, is that of the biggest players in the sector. This lobbying effort is so big, that it even surpasses previous heavy hitters like pharma, fossil fuels, finance, and chemicals. This also means that since taking office in 2019, when Commission high-level officials have held 271 meetings on digital policy, 75 percent of them were with industry lobbyists’[3].

This lobbying effort is so big, that it even surpasses previous heavy hitters like pharma, fossil fuels, finance, and chemicals.

Big Tech’s lobbying also relies on its funding of a wide network of third parties, including think tanks, SME and start-up associations and law and economic consultancies to push through its messages. Yet, these links are often not disclosed, obfuscating potential biases and conflicts of interest. The ethics and practice of these policy organisations varies but some seem to have played a particularly active role in discussions surrounding the Digital Services pack, hosting exclusive or skewed debates on behalf of their funders or publishing reports intended to spread more fear and bias.

As expressed by Agustín Reyna, Director for Legal and Economic Affairs at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) ‘What is most striking is how Big Tech is trying to control the narrative around regulating digital markets and services, through its extensive use of think-tanks, industry groups, high-level names and consultancies and academic research. With big bucks and a towering presence, Big Tech is trying hard to prevent the emergence of EU rules that will force them to change the way they operate in Europe.’

All of this gets further compounded by the lack-lustre enforcement of already existing rules. One example of this is the complaint lodged with the Irish data protection commissioner, Helen Dixon about Facebook moving EU citizen’s data out of the EU[4]. Normally this should not be allowed under GDPR rules, yet the claim of the complaint is that this practice continues unabated. The Irish authorities have meanwhile done very little to look into the case, prompting the European Parliament to get involved, with the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) Committee, issuing a resolution a few weeks ago, criticizing the Irish regulators for attempting to shift onto the lodger of the complaint, the costs of the entire court case, which could very well deter many other plaintiffs from coming forward in future years.

And when legislators do try to correct the course and file cases against Big Tech, as has been the case on several occasions with the European Commission’s DG COMPETITION, regulators are going up against companies with enough money to buy small-sized armies of lawyers, economists and spin-doctors. In the case of Google, their market capitalization is close to $1.1 trillion, which is bigger than the GDP of all but 14 countries in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund. Hence, it is perhaps no wonder that even after having been investigated and fined three times from 2017 to 2019 for anti-competitive behaviour, for a total of $9 billion, Google maintains its 93% of the market share of internet searches in Europe[5].

In the case of Google, their market capitalization is close to $1.1 trillion, which is higher than the GDP of all but 14 countries in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

So, what are we to make of all this and what effects will it have on the voice of civil society getting heard on essential issues for our sovereignty such as data privacy or non-interference in electoral processes?

This is the dilemma that we as a society have to consider sooner rather than later. Of course we can’t prevent Big Tech from lobbying legislators, but we can make sure to elect and push our politicians to be properly prepared when dealing with these companies and their secretly financed mouthpieces. We can make sure that the competition rules and data privacy rules are enforced in our own countries, and we can realise, that if each country acts as an individual we have already lost to these giants. Because when it comes to lobbying, Big Tech already have the economic strength to silence all other voices.

[1] https://www.business-standard.com/article/technology/google-committed-to-comply-with-local-laws-work-with-govts-sundar-pichai-121052700266_1.html

[2] https://www.ft.com/content/602ec7ec-4f18-11ea-95a0-43d18ec715f5

[3] https://corporateeurope.org/sites/default/files/2021-08/The%20lobby%20network%20-%20Big%20Tech%27s%20web%20of%20influence%20in%20the%20EU.pdf

[4] https://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/irish-data-regulator-sparks-row-with-eu-colleagues-on-facebook-oversight-1.4513065

[5] https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-failed-to-tame-google-can-the-us-do-any-better/

Morten Clausen
Policy Officer, NFU

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