Threat to democracy

Lobbying spending by major digital companies such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple is growing in Europe. This reflects the growing role and power of the industry. At the same time, the growing expenditure can be interpreted as preparation for upcoming lobbying disputes. Debates about digital corporations have increased and important political course will be taken for Internet platforms in the near future.

What’s up? The course for digitalisation

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides for new rules for the major internet platforms and numerous competition procedures in the EU. Preparations for the so-called Digital Services Act (DSA), which aims to create new rules for Internet platforms, are in full swing. Important decisions are likely to be made in this area during the German Presidency in the coming months.

This is a reason for us to look closely at how and with what sums of money influence is being exerted here. Political decisions must not be unilaterally influenced by the digital corporations and their large lobbying apparatuses. An important prerequisite for this is that Big Tech’s lobby networks are recognizable at all. However, our research shows that digital companies in Brussels are often non-transparent.

Undercover Lobbying: Big Tech and the Think Tanks

The tech companies work intensively with so-called think tanks. These organisations publish studies and position papers, organise discussion events and lobby on regulatory issues. However, these connections are not always directly traceable. That is a problem. This allows companies to give the impression that their concerns are supported by more ostensibly independent advocates. This increases the chances of influencing political discourse for one’s own benefit. And it makes it difficult to critically analyze the influence of large companies.

Our research shows that big tech and think tanks often do not handle their connections transparently: either the think tanks do not disclose the membership of tech companies, or the tech companies themselves do not disclose that they have connections with seemingly independent think tanks. The second case is much more frequent and is in breach of the EU Lobby Register guidelines. On the basis of this search, we have submitted a complaint to the Lobby Register Secretariat.

Threat to democracy

Facebook, in particular, conceals numerous memberships in think tanks, as the table shows. Apple and Google also do not disclose all memberships. Amazon changed its lobby register entry a day after the complaint and now announces its membership in CERRE.

Think tanks that don’t disclose memberships

But it’s not just Facebook and co that don’t disclose their memberships. Even the think tanks themselves do not do so – neither on their website nor in the lobby register entry.

European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE)

For example, lobby register entry and the external representation of the European Center for International Political Economy (ECIPE) raise questions. According to its own lobby register entry, ECIPE has no members. But Microsoft itself says it is a member of ECIPE in the lobby register.

Center for European Reform (CER)

The same applies to the Centre for European Reform (CER). While CER states that it has no members in the lobby register, Microsoft is once again one of its members. At the very least, this raises questions. It could indicate that Microsoft wants to indicate in its lobby register that it is financially supporting CER. According to this logic, however, Apple would also have to show this. Because on the CER website Apple is listed as a donor company, but does not show membership in the lobby register.

Center for Data Innovation (CDI)

As has already been reported, the Center for Data Innovation (CDI) lacks any indication of who its members are. In addition, CDI does not specify who finances it. Google states its membership in CDI in its own lobby register entry, the think tank itself does not name Google. The CDI also does not disclose its links to tech companies in publications such as the Opinion on the Digital Services Act. In our view, CDI is in breach of the CODE of conduct of the EU Lobby Register, which requires lobbyists to indicate what interests they assign and who their members are (where applicable). “Corporate Europe Observatory” has submitted its own [complaint](/static/downloads/Information Technology and Innovation Foundation - complaint.pdf “Information Technology and Innovation Foundation”) about CDI.

We hope that the EU Lobby Register Secretariat will soon clarify these gaps and inconsistencies, so that we can get more clarity about the links between big tech and the think tanks. At least as far as official memberships are concerned. In addition, digital companies themselves should disclose who they are financially supporting without being a formal member. We had requested this from Google in the spring, but Google had refused to provide this information. In the US, the company, like other tech companies, discloses which organizations receive money. Unfortunately, Google & Co. do not maintain the same transparency in Europe. However, the fact that we are dealing with powerful lobbying actors is becoming increasingly clear from the lobbying expenditure that can be seen.

Big Tech lobbying

All tech companies appear in the top 30 companies after lobbying spending in Brussels. Google is by far the first place with a lobby budget of 8 million euros, followed by Microsoft in second place (5 million euros) and Facebook in 5th place (4.25 million euros). Only the oil company Shell and the pharmaceutical giant BAYER manage to lobby the tech giants in third and fourth place with more than 4.295 million euros in lobbying expenditures. Apple and Amazon are slightly further behind at 16th and 23rd place.

Google ranks second in the overall ranking of all lobbyists, including associations (2018 figures; unfortunately, Google has not yet published its latest figures), so it is in the top 5, Microsoft is 9th (2019 figures) and Facebook is 16th (2019 figures). This is clear from our EU lobby database Lobbyfacts.eu.

Even after the number of lobbying meetings of companies with high-level representatives of the Commission, which have been published since November 2014, all five tech giants are in the top 15, again with Google in first place with 254 meetings. By comparison, Airbus ranks second with 189 meetings. This is followed by Facebook (154) and Microsoft (141). The only lobbying organisation that has had more meetings with the Commission is the powerful European Employers' Association BusinessEurope, of which Google is, incidentally, a member.

Double the amount of lobbying spending as the powerful car companies

Together, the big five digital companies, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, are spending 21 million euros on lobbying. By comparison, the car lobby, which is considered to be extremely powerful, the top seven carmakers in Europe, Volkswagen, Daimler, BMW, Renault, Ford, Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot, spent a total of 7.9 million euros on lobbying in 2019, less than half compared to the digital groups.

DigitalEurope: the most important trade association

The additional expenditure of Big Tech’s interbranch organisations is not yet included. In addition to the companies themselves, the large associations also represent the interests of the tech giants. The most important at EU level are:

with a total lobby budget of EUR 2.15 million. At least four of the five major tech companies are members of the associations. The most financially powerful association is DigitalEurope with a budget of 1.25 million euros in 2019. More about DigitalEurope and the activities of the association in our lobby.

The entry of EuroISPA in the lobby register raises questions. The association claims to have spent only 10,000 euros on lobbying in 2018, although five people work there and at least three of them are responsible for lobbying. We have complained about EuropISPA to the lobby register secretariat.

Big Tech’s lobbying shows an important difference from other industries. Many of the associations of Facebook, Google and Co. work only on specific topics (such as data protection) and are less concentrated than in other industries, such as the automotive industry. At VW, Daimler and Co, for example, there is much more lobbying going on through the industry’s umbrella organisations. So far, the car companies have managed quite well to pool their interests, so that they left a lot of representation of interests to the umbrella associations.

As an illustration, the “Association des Constructeurs Européens d’Automobiles” (ACEA) has a lobby budget of 2.75 million euros, while the main digital industry association DigitalEurope spends less than half of it. Think tanks and other organizations play an important role in this.

The European Internet Forum (EIF), an intergroup with a budget of half a million euros in 2019, is also an important place for networking lobbyists with Members of the European Parliament. In addition to the members, companies are members. In addition, there are associated members, such as associations, such as industry associations or civil society organisations. However, the majority of members are enterprises or at least financed by companies.

“Lobbying power of digital corporations worrying

Google, Amazon and Co. are stepping up their lobbying activities worldwide, including in the EU. It is unacceptable that the tech companies do not disclose their links to think tanks and act in a non-transparent manner. Precisely because fundamental choices are needed in Europe to limit the power of digital corporations, transparency is the least that the corporations owe us. It also shows once again that we urgently need an improvement in the EU lobby register, including a duty for think tanks to make their funding transparent.