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A first report on the lobbying of Internet giants in Europe, published on Tuesday, reveals the extent of the efforts made by the Gafam and the techniques used to try to influence the European legislator.

An army at the service of the giants of the Net. They are 1,452 lobbyists to spend 97 million euros every year since 2019 to try to influence decision-makers in Brussels for the benefit of large groups in the technology sector. For the first time, a report published Tuesday, August 31 by the NGOs Lobby control and Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) lifts part of the veil on the efforts of Big Tech to impose their points of view in the corridors of the institutions of the European Union.

“We knew the economic power of these industries, but we also realized their weight in the political debate in Europe”, underlines Max Bank, spokesperson for Lobby Control and one of the co-authors of the report.

Google leads lobbying spending

If more than 600 tech groups seek to influence the European legislator, the lion’s share goes to Gafam (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft). Along with Huawei, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm and Vodafone, they spend 32 million euros a year, or nearly a third of the industry’s overall lobbying effort.

Google leads with an annual budget of 5.75 million euros, ahead of Facebook and Microsoft who spend, respectively, 5.5 million and 5.25 million euros to attract the good graces of European decision-makers.

The intensity of this lobbying effort is probably unprecedented in the history of the EU. It is difficult to say with certainty, because “the rules on transparency have evolved so that we have more information today than before”, explains Margarida Silva, analyst for the NGO Corporate Europe Observatory and co-authors of the report, contacted by France 24. Nevertheless “No group, whether in the automotive sector or among pharmaceutical companies, has ever made public the sums allocated to lobbying in the EU as large as the Gafam ”, She adds.

This money is mainly used to pay consultants, or lawyers who know how to knock on the right doors in Brussels. One in 10 lobbyists active in the new technology sector in Brussels works for one of the Big Techs, note the authors of the report.

The pressure of these digital giants, mainly the Americans, is all the stronger now “as the texts debated in Brussels can have very significant impacts on the economic model of these large groups”, underlines Margarida Silva.

Lobbying expenses of the top ten tech groups © Corporate Europe Observatory / Lobby Control

Two reforms are particularly important in the eyes of Gafam: the legislation on the digital market (Digital Market Act, DMA) and the legislation on digital services (Digital Service Act, DSA). These texts are supposed, respectively, to guarantee healthy competition in the sector and to make platforms – such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – more responsible for illegal content posted by their users.

It is therefore not surprising that Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, and Thierry Breton, who is responsible for the internal market, are the European officials who have received the most visits from Big Tech lobbyists in the past two years.

These large groups do not hesitate to go and knock directly on the doors of the ministers of each state. Apple, for example, has increased meetings with members of the Estonian government, very involved in debates on the European digital market, the authors of the report found.

Drag things out

But this lobbying effort is not just a question of big money and meetings in cozy offices in Brussels. There are also all the extras. “I remember the indecent number of lunches, seminars and other conferences organized daily by these large groups or boxes of consultants working for them,” said Tommaso Valletti, economist at Imperial College London, during a press conference to present the conclusions of the report. He worked for the Directorate-General for Competition of the European Commission between 2016 and 2019.

“There is also a whole network of think tanks and consultancies which are partly financed by these Big Techs and which serve their interests in Brussels”, adds Margarida Silva. For her, this entry into think tanks is potentially more dangerous than the fact of increasing the number of meetings with MEPs or commissioners because “it is done in all opacity” and most decision-makers attend these events or read studies without knowing that the author has links to Google, Facebook or Amazon.

All these efforts do not serve to block legislation that does not please the Gafam. It is much more pernicious: “they seek to slow down the adoption of reforms, or campaign for the texts to be written in such a way that it is then easier for them to circumvent the adopted measures”, explains Tommaso Valletti.

This is how, for example, the ePrivacy regulation, initially proposed in 2017, dragged on for years in the Council of the EU, which did not take a position until February 2021 on the text. This slowness is to be blamed on a very discreet and effective lobbying by Gafam, say the authors of the report.

To slow down the European legislative process in this way, the Gafam “use the same technique as the tobacco industry in the 1950s or as the oil groups regarding the climate impact of their activities, that is to say the agnotology, where the art of sowing doubt and cultivating ignorance ”, summarizes Tommaso Valletti. Thus, documents detailing the strategy of the lobbyists of several Gafam, which the authors of the report were able to consult, underline the importance of insisting on the “unintended consequences” of reforms such as the Digital Market Act, in order to make lawmakers hesitate.

When officials from Facebook or Google very publicly evoke the “threat of Chinese competition”, it is also a way of scaring the legislator. “This is to say that any rule that harms Gafam would be a boon to the Chinese ‘bad guys’,” said the report’s authors.

War machine

It is therefore a real and very well financed war machine that the Gafams have set up in Europe. The techniques are not new, but the means implemented are equal to a small group of multinationals which has accumulated a treasure beyond measure in modern economic history.

Contacted by the American site TechCrunch, Google affirmed that it “publishes all its activities in the European transparency register”, and that it does everything “to protect the independence of the organizations that we support financially”.

For its part, the European Commission deplored “that these criticisms [dans le rapport] do not take into account that the EU is passing legislation to regulate the tech sector faster than in any other democratic region in the world, as with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) ”.

This text, adopted in 2016, is also an example of success against Gafam lobbyists, according to Margarida Silva. But it took “a few courageous European leaders, a real involvement of civil society, NGOs who have had a voice in the chapter and the media which have widely covered this subject”, she underlines. Suffice to say that we need a general mobilization to reach the ankle of the giants of the Net.

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