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The real threats to democracy

A fierce lobbying battle is raging behind the scenes of the EU institutions. In order to thwart a broad regulation of the business areas of the large digital corporations, Google, Facebook, Apple and Co.offer everything that gives money, power and influence. According to a study by the LobbyControl initiative, the industry makes almost 100 million euros loose annually – more than any other economic sector. The main players are the tech companies themselves, sponsored associations, think tanks and PR agencies. Together they sing the song of a healthy world of bits and bytes and thus determine the background noise of political and media operations.

At the end of October 2020, a confidential paper from the US digital giant Google causes a stir. The 18-page document leaked by insiders was first reported by the French news magazine “Le Point”. The internals, which are also leaked to the “Handelsblatt”, contain plenty of explosiveness: The European Commission is currently preparing to give the leading digital companies from Silicon Valley regulatory reins in their unbridled pursuit of profit and power as part of two legislative initiatives. The plans will be presented one month later, at the beginning of December.

But Google has long been pre-built for the emergency and all sorts of arrows in the quiver to prevent, as the presentation in question says, “excessive restrictions on our business model.” In a table, the authors list in detail when and how which political decision – maker is to be dealt with-for example during a virtual breakfast with the deputy EU ambassadors or a meeting with the responsible head of unit in the General Secretariat of the Commission. In particular, the Commissioner responsible for Internal Market and Services, Thierry Breton, is being targeted, who now considers the big platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon to be “too big to care”. The" resistance " against the Frenchman must be increased, with the help of Washington and the US embassies, mood should be made against him and as allies media, other digital companies as well as science would be to mobilize. In addition, they are betting on sowing discord between him and the competition and digital Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. The Dane wants the Google whispers to add that Breton’s ambitions would limit her own room for maneuver. All these measures serve the one purpose: “to fundamentally change the political debate.”

Lies for Business

When the revelations made the rounds ten months ago, the association LobbyControl, which is dedicated to educating about influence peddling, PR campaigns and think tanks, wrote of “hard bandages” and an “aggressive lobbying strategy” of the Californian Internet giant. The activists have long since made their own research into the manifold machinations of the latter to clamp down on politics for their own goals. For example, the group maintains an extensive “lobby network”, which also includes several think tanks that handle the necessary political and media landscape maintenance. This includes, for example, hosting events with the participation of mandate holders or launching relevant studies that praise the achievements of the big tech industry to the skies and declare regulatory intervention to be vicious.

Reference is made, for example, to an investigation by the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) – financed by Google – which ruminates the usual arguments: bad for users and consumers, loss of jobs, declining economic power, less investment, poison for innovative spirit, the evil Chinese. LobbyControl interviewed the former chief economist of the EU Competition Directorate, Tommaso Valletti. His verdict: “Laughable”, with this study any student would have failed him. The southern European think tank PromethEUs is also working hard for Google’s interests. It has repeatedly brought together key political and business figures at conferences to discuss the “challenges and shortcomings” of EU regulatory efforts. According to LobbyControl, the organization is sponsored by Google and the planning of its events is approved by the US group.

Multimillion-dollar persuasion

Of course, Google does not act alone in lobbying in the context of the EU Commission, Council and Parliament. In fact, the IT and platform industry commands an entire army of collaborators and collaborators for the sole purpose of aligning legislative institutions at the national and international levels. The full extent of the activities is revealed in a study published last week by LobbyControl and the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) initiative entitled: “The lobbying power of Big Tech: How Google & Co influence the EU.". On 52 pages, the “growing supremacy of the industry in the economy and society as a whole” becomes apparent, the authors state. “Opaque relationships with think tanks, law firms, and business consulting firms, and trying to present themselves as start-up friendly, are designed to mask big tech’s real interest: avoiding regulation.”

There may be a lot missing from all the lobbying: transparency, honesty, fairness. What is not lacking: money. As the research revealed, the digital industry recently spent 97 million euros a year promoting its interests in the Belgian capital through a variety of channels. Even the powerful car, pharmaceutical or financial lobby does not keep up with this, the investigation says. In a few years, the tech economy will catch up with what traditional industries have built up in decades of political influence. The ten largest online platforms and IT infrastructure companies have a lobby budget of more than 32 million euros, while the top ten in the financial sector, for example, have only 12 million euros. In total, the authors have identified 612 companies, associations, think tanks and lobbying agencies that are involved in the IT sector in the EU metropolis. In addition to the usual suspects, according to the study, “a large number of other companies from the fields of energy, finance, defense and mobility are also involved in the political discussion about the digital economy.”

US dominance, Chinese restraint

Of course, the big players play the first violin. Google is ranked at the top of the list for lobbying spending with 5.75 million euros, followed by Facebook with 5.5 million and Microsoft with five million euros. In association with Apple and Amazon, the five US heavyweights bring 23 million euros on the scales. In addition, the first ten include: Huawei, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm and Vodafone. Together, they employed more than 140 full-time lobbyists at EU level, about a tenth of the total 1,452 lobbyists the technology industry has on payroll. The ranking reflects the dominance of US corporations. A fifth of all companies operating on the political stage come from across the Atlantic. After all, 14 percent of the candidates are in Germany, less than one percent in China or Hong Kong.

With which the common narrative crumbles to a certain extent, the Chinese soon take the helm in Europe. For the time being, and above all, the Americans are in charge, with the corporate powers recruiting their influencers and spindoctors not just from their own ranks. In addition, associations and lobbying agencies that act on behalf of the companies and are paid by them are looking for contact with the political control centres. Leading among the associations is DigitalEurope with an annual budget of 1.25 million euros for lobbying activities, followed by DOT Europe and The Software Alliance (BSA) with expenses of 500,000 euros each. The German primus Bitkom is investing 300,000 euros in its lobbying activities, maintaining very close contact with the EU political apparatus with eleven full-time employees and its own office in Brussels. LobbyControl has counted 98 lobbying agencies with a Brussels branch, of which 14 work for the ten largest digital companies. Google alone commissioned 12 of them and spent 1.28 million euros – almost a quarter of its total lobbying budget.

Threat of breaking up

These legislative packages, around which a real lobbying battle is currently raging, are the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA). The former is intended to reform the legal framework for online mediation services, which will also affect the moderation of digital content, recommendation systems and online advertising. The DMA is primarily dedicated to the excessive and monopolistic market power of online platforms. To this end, a list of bids and bans is to be developed in order to control access to the market more closely and to curtail the influence of the so – called gatekeepers – the companies that determine the entry to the digital markets.

The Portal Netzpolitik.org wrote on the occasion of the presentation of the plans by the EU Commission in December 2020 of “revolutionary proposals” in the dimension of a"platform basic law”. For example, social networks with more than 45 million users were subject to new measures against the distribution of illegal content. They would have to disclose the operation of their algorithms and allow an independent review of the precautions taken. Infringements could result in penalties of up to six percent of their global annual turnover. A stated goal is to improve market access and opportunities, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). For example, the big ones are no longer likely to evaluate the data of their business customers in order to compete with them, which is mainly due to the online shipping monster Amazon.

Prevent, dilute, deceive

Another provision places restrictions on the use of data in digital advertising, which could cost Google and Facebook billions of euros. In addition, the Commission should be able to ban questionable business practices via blacklists in the future. Consequently, as a last resort, the break-up of corporations could even take place, provided that they do not bend to the European rules. No wonder that the big tech lobby is running against such" encroachments " storm and offers everything in terms of money, power and influence. For example, this is evidenced by a pronounced eagerness to consult. Since the new commission under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) took office, 271 meetings on the topics of DSA and DMA with Commission representatives have taken place in one and a half years alone. In 202 cases, business lobbyists were invited, only 52 times emissaries of NGOs, consumer organizations and trade unions. The President and her cabinet had 24 contacts with industry lobbyists during this period.

In fact, the platform operators" already recorded their first victory", one learns from the study. Instead of an originally recommended unbundling instrument, “which would facilitate the forced splitting of a company into different parts”, there will now be “mainly behavioral rules” at the DMA. The battle over key components, such as how to define gatekeepers, would also have begun. “The goal is clear: regulations should be watered down as much as possible.”

Regulation yes, but …

The direct interventions in the processes of decision-making are accompanied by a public-media communication strategy of forced eyewash. In the debate about DSA and DMA, the big tech companies are quite conciliatory and benevolent in their external presentation. The narrative that has been used without ceasing goes like this: What is actually well – intentioned unfortunately goes beyond the goal and causes unintentional damage-even to those who are supposed to benefit from regulation, namely consumers, smaller competitors, and indeed society as a whole.

By way of example, the study authors refer to a campaign launched by Google in September 2020 in conjunction with the German Trade Association (HDE). The messages culminate in claims that the EU’s planned new regulations threaten diversity in inner cities. The Ammenmärchen in the wording: “Buy flowers or pick up a book and meet familiar people: An active retail trade ensures life in our cities and communities”, which is why they are committed to “that it remains so in the future – with the joint initiative ZukunftHandel”. Explicitly, the devastation in the course of the Corona crisis is linked, whose probably biggest profiteer is precisely the digital industry. Now Google is preparing to suck the wounds of the victims of its displacement campaign to the blood: through offers,“with which the companies can develop into ‘hybrid enterprises’”. “Free training courses” are offered to explain “how online marketing works and how potential buyers can use Google My Business to find brick-and-mortar stores”. What seems so unselfish could not be more cynical.

Media background noise

The media is playing the wrong game, which once again proves how outstanding the influence of big tech on published opinion is now. The lobby network with its many nodes acts like a gigantic echo amplifier. Netzpolitik.org aptly describes the mechanism: “Together they hum the same melody until it becomes the background noise of the political operation.“LobbyControl puts it this way: “It’s just a matter of setting the tone in the debate.”

As evidence, back to said study of the ECIPE think tank. The planned EU legislation threatened to damage the European economy by 85 billion euros, the authors calculated. The catch is that the Commission plans had not yet been finalised at the time when the so-called expertise was made public. Nevertheless, it was well received by the media, with Google’s message in particular being brought to the public by the misguided Brussels regulators. This works so well because the online and social media dominated by Silicon Valley are mercilessly driving the traditional mass media - press, radio and television – before them. Anyone who sets a topic on Facebook, for example, is sure to attract attention in the analog echo chamber. Facebook is a social network that is run by the social network Facebook.

Hijacked Journalism

In addition, Big Tech is about to materially hijack the “old” media world. For example, Jeff Bezos incorporated the venerable “Washington Post” into his Amazon empire eight years ago. Google sponsors renowned newspaper publishers on a large scale as part of the Google News and Digital News Initiative (GNI, DNI) and makes them compliant in terms of content through financial dependencies. The group is currently in the process of establishing its Google News platform as a kind of super news channel in cooperation with media houses such as the “Spiegel”, the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ) or the “Berliner Tagesspiegel”.

The technology industry is also advancing its business interests in terms of personnel policy. Specifically, so-called page-changers are hired, who overflow from the EU Commission or the EU Parliament into the camp of industry and are royally rewarded as networkers with the best political contacts. Not infrequently, people even switch back and forth between politics, companies, associations and think tanks several times. Just the prospect of a lucrative job in industry, possibly even in later years, can already inhibit one’s ability to criticize the economy.

These and other forms of structural corruption are likely to be a very important factor in the fact that initially “snappy” bills are completely disentangled in the political consultation process and end up as “bed mats” for industrial bosses. You have to be seriously worried that this time it won’t be any different. From Mark Zuckerberg’s mouth, it sounds like this: “Facebook is no longer waiting for regulation.“You just regulate yourself.