‘Astroturfing’ and other non-transparent lobbying tactics used in recent years to target digital policymakers in the European Union – including during a wave of spending aimed at influencing major new pan-EU regulations such as the Digital Services Act (DSA ) – led a group of MEPs and NGOs to fight back by launching a hotline for reporting attempts to indirectly influence the bloc’s technology policy agenda.
The new tips line, first reported by the guardis called LobbyLeaks.
The office of one of the MEPs co-leading the effort, Paul Tang of the S&D group, said the idea is to collect data on underhanded lobbying efforts that may target EU digital policymaking, such as the use of third party trade associations. or consultancies with no clear disclosures, or even academics quietly funded to write favorable research – so they can be studied and called upon. They also want to ensure that EU lawmakers are better informed about the myriad ways technology giants can influence them as they work to shape the rules that platform giants must comply with.
In a statement on the initiative, Tang added: “As politicians, it is our duty to balance the interests of industry, civil society and society as a whole. Manipulation by shady lobbying is a threat not only to good legislation, but to our entire democracy. That is why we need to put all these wolves in sheep’s clothing in the spotlight and fight against disloyal lobbying methods.”
Last October, Tang was one of three MEPs who filed complaints with the EU Transparency Register — accusing Amazon, Google and Meta (Facebook’s parent company) of using outside industry associations or groups claiming to represent start-ups and SMEs , to whitewash and lobby their talking points opaque. All involved denied any wrongdoing – and that investigation is still ongoing. But Tang and others meanwhile apparently want to keep up the pressure.
The new reporting tool is hosted on the LobbyLeaks.eu website. Staff and members of the European institutions are encouraged to use it to report shady or irregular things they’ve seen, for example by forwarding unusual emails they’ve received or suspicious ads targeted online.
LobbyLeaks isn’t actually a phone line, but rather an encrypted web form for submitting tips. The idea there is to lower the threshold for reporting concerns. Including time constraints – as the targets of lobbying are often quite busy people. In addition, there is a guarantee of “complete confidentiality” for all tips.
The two NGOs involved in the initiative Observatory for Corporate Europe (CEO) and Lobby Control, receives the tips and investigates — looking for patterns. And ultimately to expose untrustworthy lobbying behavior and, if necessary, exert pressure to change the transparency rules.
Bram Vranken, a campaigner and researcher at the CEO, in a statement accused Big Tech of underhanded lobbying to try to perpetuate a “toxic” business model based on exploitation:
The Big Tech business model is toxic. It is based on aggressive surveillance advertising and data extraction, deploying algorithmic content management systems that amplify disinformation and hateful content, and deprives employees of their rights. Lobby leaks will help expose these kinds of deceptive and opaque influences that are central to Big Tech lobbying tactics.
Lobbying that is not clearly disclosed as such undermines democratic accountability and due process, and risks – at the very least – misleading lawmakers. Among other things, by giving an advantage to those who have the most resources to devote to promoting and funding an extensive network of external ‘messagers’.
Last year, a report from COE and another community group, Worldwide witnesshighlighted some of the recent Big Tech lobbying activity in the EU – including in strategic areas such as ad tracking, where a number of adtech giants aligned their lobbying efforts to avoid the threat of a total ban on the DSA.
In that case, they prevailed: the EU institutions agreed only partial restrictions on the use of personal data for ad targeting – thus avoiding the threat of a total ban on tracking and profiling.
During the negotiations on the DSA, some EU lawmakers also reported receiving hyper-targeted ads on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – such as messages pushing Facebook’s self-serving claims that restrictions on ad tracking would harm SMEs – raising questions on whether or not highly targeted advertising campaigns chosen by EU legislators in Brussels working on (or following) relevant policy files constitutes ‘lobbying’ in a formal sense (and should therefore be clearly stated in transparency registers).
Tang’s office said the LobbyLeaks hotline aims to both shed a more sanitizing light on shady lobbying practices to keep pace with evolving tactics and collect data that can be used to help lawmakers consider whether changes to EU transparency rules are needed to keep pace with increasingly well funded efforts to influence policy making. Although those behind the hotline are not currently advocating changes to transparency laws. But let’s wait and see what LobbyLeaks uncovers.
Some change is already looming in the EU – through the political advertising transparency rules proposed by the Commission in November 2021. For example, the new rules will require political and interest-based ads to include disclosures that state who paid for the posts. Though it’s not clear how effective they’ll be in clearing up anti-democratic tactics like astroturfing.
While Big Tech lobbying at the EU has exploded during the Commission’s current tenure, thanks to major updates to (and expansion of) the bloc’s digital rulebook, there was still a major lobbying effort around the previous digital copyright reform . So the problem isn’t entirely new – and tactics that try to disguise a sponsor’s participation in order to disguise their corporate self-interest and protect them from basic accountability (and their stances against thorough scrutiny) are, of course, even older than that; it’s the same old dirty playbook as Big Tobacco.
But it is clear that there is a big increase in lobbying, given the huge sums now routinely spent by Big Tech to try and shape the laws that will apply to them. And given the proliferation of a sprawling network of opaquely funded third parties all conveniently aligned with tech giants’ talking points.