It is a long road from decision to action in the political world – and there can be some very deep potholes along the way.
Whether it is reducing the intended impact of legislation before it is enacted, influencing legislators before they come to make decisions, or deploying delaying tactics to prevent laws being applied, there is a considerable arsenal of influence available to those with the resources and connections to get their own way. Large tech firms appear to use every tactic, and money appears to be no object.
A recent report Big Tech’s Web of Influence in the EU puts big tech’s web of influence in stark relief against the backdrop of the EU Digital Markets and Digital Services Acts. These Acts aim to prohibit large tech firms form merging personal data collected across multiple services, and prevent them from giving their own products top billing in internet searches. Another key element is allowing competing services to interact with the operating system, hardware, or software. despite obvious risks to competition, the world’s largest tech companies are pushing back against this, campaigning instead for self-regulation.
Self-regulation as a concept might seem somewhat suspect when one considers this backdrop of influence and some of the possible tactics used to achieve it. According to the Report, the Big Tech Lobby operates indirectly, deploying third party organisations to do their bidding to weaken legislation. Big Tech’s reach extends further into the national political arena, influencing thinking behind legislation before it ever gets to Commission level. Here, fear tactics can also be employed to strengthen an argument or shape a debate. These are all strategies Big Tech has used for a long time. Perhaps however, what’s breath taking is understanding the scale of the influence and the monies involved.
Free ICT Europe has been on the ground in Brussels since 2014 talking to legislators about the need to allow small everyday businesses repair and resell their hardware and software rather than face the complex unfair and costly anti-competitive practices of Big Tech. President Tomas O’Leary says the contents of the report come as no surprise.
“We have seen at first-hand how the normal legislative processes gets hijacked by lobbying from various Big Tech representatives operating in Brussels. It’s like a very expensive and exclusive club where there are no rules governing the members activities. Big Tech’s lobbying effort is to either stop, or water down well-meaning regulatory policies that has any potential consequences for them or their peers. They support each other to keep everything of consequence off the table for as long as possible. They want to frustrate the legislative agenda as much as possible to ensure that the current lack of rules and regulations can remain in place for as long as possible.”
According to the analysis carried out by the Corporate Europe Observatory , large players collectively spend over € 97 million annually lobbying the EU institutions, and this excludes their joint lobby organisation DigitalEurope. The top ten digital platforms and infrastructure companies spend far more than the top ten chemical companies (€ 17.75 million) and spend three times more than the top ten car companies combined, (€ 9.85 million) including Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW.
Writers of the Report also analysed the number of lobbyists in Brussels and found significantly more from Big Tech than other sectors. “In terms of sheer number of lobbyists, Facebook (14 Full Time Equivalent – FTE), Huawei (19 FTE) and Microsoft (7.5 FTE) are notable for their firepower, followed by Google and Amazon with 5 FTE20. Beyond the top ten corporations, there are platforms like Booking.com (3 FTE), Netflix, and Airbnb (2.75 FTE each) in Brussels,” it states. “To put this in context, the majority of platforms and infrastructure companies usually have only one lobbyist working on the ground.”
Tied to this is the fact that 75% of the meetings relating to current legislation are with industry lobbyists. The lion’s share of these industry meetings (86%) were with six of the Big Tech companies. It is also interesting to note that many of the other bodies consulted in legislative meetings – trade associations and think-tanks – either have Big Tech membership or cross over between employees. This is something that smaller players need to guard against. With much smaller pockets and fewer lobbyists on the payroll, independent organisations rely on partnerships to help drive change. Researching partners is vital when organisations are not necessarily who they appear to be to ensure that one doesn’t accidentally get into bed with the other side.
“When we are choosing allies, we have to be careful that we look closely at who is funding the organisation, who its members are, and the background of the executives involved. When we see Big Tech we usually stay away,” explains O’Leary.
Tactics behind the scenes
One of the major pushes of Big Tech is self-regulation rather than perceived risk of government interference. However, there is some evidence that the hands-off approach does not work both ways. One example highlighted it the Report is Apple’s communications with the Estonian Ministry of Justice, which seem to suggest the company was trying to influence arguments before they were raised in the Competitiveness Council as well as uncovering privileged information.
“The focus of Big Tech lobby effort is to undermine EU by targeting member states. They would rather deal with individual member states who are more easily manipulated due to their lack of size and more localised issues. We have seen this in other areas such as the landmark UsedSoft GmbH v Oracle case (https://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?docid=124564&doclang=EN ), that individual governments will come to the aid of Big Tech players (in this case Ireland, France & Italy). It is rare that they would do that for the smaller player in our experience,” says O’Leary.
Loopholes and legislation
Repair and upgrade can be made very difficult by manufacturers using restrictive practices even when legislation falls against them. A good example was highlighted by The Tech Care Association recently. It reported that according to multiple sources, replacing the screen in an iPhone 13 screen results in a breakdown in the face ID feature unless the repair is carried out by Apple or an Apple recognised repair location. It is a small feature loss but representative of a larger issue, namely that equipment manufacturers can effectively disable parts with software to create a monopoly. Although, this is a separate issue to lobbying power of Big Tech it is indicative of an attitude towards legislation and regulation.
The huge behemoths behind Big Tech (to the tune of $1 trillion in market capitalisation by late 2020) are saying quite clearly that they do not want the rules to apply to them. We can either accept this or work together to do something about it.
As Tomas O’Leary puts it:
“Ultimately, the right to ownership and the freedom of consumers and businesses to purchase, maintain and repair their technology from whomever they like can no longer be an abstract ambition. It must become an accepted norm. If legislators are not motivated to act based on individual rights, they should have plenty of incentive from a sustainability and circular economy perspective. It’s time to fill in some of those potholes on the road to legislative action. Just watch out for Big Tech trying to dig a few more along the way.”
More information on Free ICT Europe is available at: www.freeict.eu
About Astrid Wynne Rogers
Astrid is also chair for the Sustainability Special Interest Group at the Data Centre Alliance, sits on the Consensus Body for the ANSI Reman Standard at the Remanufacturing Industries Council and is a board member at Free ICT Europe.