Brussels, 19 Jan (EFE)
Large technology companies are accumulating such an unprecedented political and economic power that the European Union (EU) has set out to regulate them through two laws, but digital companies invest millions in lobbying to subvert such legislation in their favor.
Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple spent more than 19 million euros on “lobbying” in 2019, according to the EU’s transparency registry collected by Integrity Watch.
Silicon Valley technologies have woven a network of influence in Brussels, a niche of more than 12,000 “lobbyists,” which doubles the expenditure invested in lobbying by the seven major car manufacturers in Europe led by Google, which between 2018 and 2019 invested nearly 14 million euros in these activities.
A few months before the European Commission (EC) released its proposal on the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the plan that the search engine devised to undermine the new European regulations was leaked.
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“The leaked Google lobbying strategy shows that the technology giants plan to pit the commissioners against each other,” LobbyControl researcher Max Bank told EFE in a written interview.
In that document, the head of the Internal Market portfolio, the Frenchman Thierry Breton, was explicitly mentioned as a Google target, since the leader was very critical publicly of the power of digital platforms.
The strategy also revealed how Google would use its Youtube platform and search engine to “spread stories to the users of its services in order to mobilize public opinion against stricter regulation,” explains Bank.
How does the Big Tech lobby apply pressure?
The expert warns that technology companies exert pressure in a “very aggressive” and “non-transparent” way, partly because of their collaboration with think tanks, which it finances using their reputation as independents, yet getting them to assume their same position.
They give money or are members of these research centers so that their message is spread as “independent or respectable,” says Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) researcher Margarida Silva, who points out the kind of money that Google, Facebook and other companies can lose if they don’t exert this kind of pressure.
“They don’t mention how regulation hurts them, but rather how this would lead to a loss for the entire European economy,” she points out.
Among the think tanks named in the Google leak is the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE), which before December 15th, when the EC made public its regulatory proposals, published a report in favor of Big Tech.
The study warned that the Digital Services Act would create a loss “of some 85,000 million Euros in GDP and 101,000 million Euros in loss of consumer welfare.”
The coordinator for Political Integrity of the EU at Transparency International, Vitor Teixeira, qualifies that everyone who is affected by European legislation “has the right” to express their opinion.
The problem lies, according to him, in the imbalance between organizations: “the more money a multinational has, the more meetings it can hold and therefore the more it can influence.”
“It also helps as they have more meetings, the fact they hire people who have worked or have friends in these institutions,” adds Teixeira.
Additionally, the staffer now responsible for Facebook in Brussels, Aura Salla, previously worked in the Community Executive Office as a foreign policy advisor and as a member of the cabinet of Vice-President Jyrki Katainen during the administration of Jean-Claude Juncker.
Lack of transparency
At the end of 2020, the three institutions (Commission, Council and Parliament) agreed to change the transparency registry, a database listing organizations seeking to influence the legislative process and the implementation of EU policies.
Teixeira was part of the negotiations, which began five years ago, to improve a registry that is currently voluntary and has very few staff to verify the actual lobbyists’ expenditure.
“We were promised that registration would be mandatory and they have not delivered,” laments Teixeira, who considers it essential to register in order to hold meetings with politicians and to check whether the information provided by companies is true.
The head of Transparency International in Brussels bemoans the lack of “more proactivity” on the part of public leaders, who must deal with all organizations regardless of the special interest they may represent.
In this same vein, Banks considers that “EU politicians should not just follow the unilateral advice of a massive and non-transparent lobbyist for Big Tech”.
He emphasizes that, in a legislative process as important as the DSA, “all voices must be heard,” paying special attention to “those that truly represent the public interest.”
For his part, Silva adds that if a multinational accumulates so much power to “potentially influence policy” it can lead to a “distortion of the democratic process” with the approval of policies “that do not protect the interest of all” and lead to social injustice or economic inequality.
The final approval of the Digital Services Act, created to improve accountability, transparency and control of the platforms’ actions, is scheduled for two years from now. Until then, the major technological companies have room for maneuvering to continue to influence the draft of this law.