The dominance of Google and Facebook is disastrous for the public debate online. We've been saying this for a long time. But this dominance can also be felt in the regulation of the same platforms. Huge amounts of money are spent by big tech to influence European laws and regulations.
Each year, large technology companies spend together almost 100 million eurosThe figures come from a study by Corporate Europe Observatory and LobbyControl on influencing European policymakers. This puts these companies in front of the pharmaceutical and financial sectors. Google and Facebook spend more than 5.5 million euros on their European lobby, Apple and Amazon around 3 million euros. In reality, their spending is likely higher, as they not only lobby individually, but sometimes also collaborate in industry associations, think tanks, and "independent" consultants. These trade associations spend more money together than the bottom three quarters of the list of lobbying clubs together. These figures have been investigated by two organizations that are specialized in this subject: Corporate Europe Observatory and Lobbycontrol.
Our work is there for all people, as human rights are there for all people.
The impact of all that money is immediately visible in the talks. It is the commercial companies that most often sit at the table with the legislative authorities in Europe. Ironically, three quarters of the European Commission's discussions about the new rules to restrict the power of platforms have been with industry lobbyists. Only one in five times does the European Commission sit at the table with an organization that stands up for a public interest. What does not emerge from the research, but what we do suspect, is that the conversations of the commercial companies often take place earlier and, moreover, with the more powerful people.
And to put all this in perspective, we also like to take you into our reality. The proposed legislation to limit the power of platforms is a gigantic package of rules on a multitude of topics. From moderation to competition and from enforcement to algorithms. None of the European organizations standing up for the protection of digital human rights has the capacity to deal with it all. Each of those organizations that are active on this legislation therefore focuses on one or at most a few sub-topics. But make no mistake. In some Member States there is no digital civil rights movement at all. Or is it kept going by volunteers who spend their late evenings protecting fundamental rights. Or are there other and even more urgent topics at hand. In short, even with this collaboration there is insufficient capacity to deal with all the sub-topics. Supervision and enforcement are therefore overlooked.
75% of the European Commission’s discussions about the new big-tech rules are with industry lobbyists.
What contributes to this imbalance is the relationship between capacity and the interests to be protected. Organizations like ours stand up for the common good. Our work is there for all people, because human rights are there for all people. Those few dominant companies that face us are only standing up for the protection of their own, and much more limited, interests. And so it is all the more harsh that those companies can spend a lot more on their lobby.
Sometimes the companies say that they would like those rules. But in doing so, they only lobby for rules that do not inhibit their dominant position. Or maybe just make it bigger. For example, rules about moderation. It just makes it easier for Facebook to point mistakes to the legislator. But legislation that reduce Facebook's market dominance would jeopardize innovation, according to the platform. Such a rule would be bad for other companies and the user. Or they frighten policymakers because such rules would put Europe behind the United States or, worse, China.
The consequences are enormous. The enormous lobbying power of these companies means that these companies are also particularly dominant in the creation of rules. Even if those rules are precisely intended to limit the power of those companies. This ensures that these rules ultimately serve the interests of these companies much more than intended and desired. And hence not yours.
This must change
Of course, this has to be different. Politicians and policy makers need to be aware of the imbalance in the capacity to defend interests. It will help a little if there is more openness about who is talking about who, when and what. And they also have to do their homework: not only listen to the lobbyist, but also verify who is paying her or him. In addition, politicians and policymakers themselves must actively seek out voices that would otherwise not be heard. And it wouldn't be a bad thing for there to be stricter rules for politicians or policymakers who make the switch to the corporate world and lobby their former colleagues.