It’s no surprise the Silicon Valley tech giants are paying close attention to regulatory activity in the European Union. As of March 2015, when then-Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the Digital Single Market, Europe has been setting a distinct profile in its conception of digitalization, a profile that is increasingly uncomfortable for the so-called Big Five or GAFAM – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. Some of the issues the Commission is prioritising through the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act are potentially very dangerous for the business model of companies like Google and Facebook. And we’re talking about a market of more than 450 million people.
A recent report by the non-profit organization Transparency International EU puts figures and numbers on this lobbying effort, with the revealing title ‘Deep pockets, open doors’. The study says that there are currently almost 13,000 organizations accredited as a lobby in the European Union’s Transparency Register, with a declared expenditure of more than 1.6 billion euros. Three of the ten companies that invest the most in this activity are technology companies, and Google tops the list at 5.75 million euros.
But more significant is the evolution of investments in lobbying by these companies. Since the EU began publishing lobbying data at the end of 2014 – and there are still many opaque areas: to name just one example, there is no data on the Council of Europe – Google has increased its budget for this line item by 360%. Apple’s budget has increased fivefold. Among technology companies, Microsoft has maintained a more consistent and stable investment. And in six years its budget has grown by a not insignificant 16%.
“Silicon Valley companies are changing the lobbying scenario in Brussels, with a meteoric rise in their spending”, the report says. Transparency International EU also notes that these companies amplify their presence on the political scene by participating in organisations and ‘think tanks’. According to their information, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft declare themselves members of 66 such entities.
Transparency International EU also points to the problem of what is called ‘revolving doors’, that is, when important people from the Union change sides and work with these large technology companies. These cases cannot always be monitored, as companies are only required to make the names of lobbyists authorised to enter the European Parliament public, and there are many other places to have an influence on regulation. Even with this limitation, the case of Facebook is striking: three of its five authorised lobbyists worked just before joining the company at European Union institutions.
Although at times they use objectionable practices – such as Google’s offensive to weaken Commissioner Thierry Breton’s position within the executive body – lobbying is a perfectly legitimate mechanism for making certain interests heard, and it can also enrich the viewpoints of legislators and public opinion. But it implies an intrinsic risk: that voices with the most economic clout are able to silence the rest. For example, as the report points out, 75% of meetings held by members of the current Commission with lobbyists were about business issues. So how does the voice of civil society get 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, because when it comes to lobbying the big tech companies already have the economic strength to silence all other voices.