EU lawmakers launch hotline to catch ‘shady’ Big Tech lobbying TechCrunch

EU lawmakers launch hotline to catch ‘shady’ Big Tech lobbying TechCrunch

EU lawmakers launch hotline to catch 'shady' Big Tech lobbying TechCrunch

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“Astroturfing” and other non-transparent lobbying tactics used to target digital policymakers in the European Union in recent years – including during a spending blitz aimed at influencing major new pan-European rules such as the Digital Services Act (DSA) – inspired a group of MEPs and NGOs to fight back by launching a hotline to report attempts to indirectly influence the bloc’s tech policy agenda.


The new advice line, which was first reported by the Guardian, is called LobbyLeaks.

The office of one of the MEPs co-leading the effort, Paul Tang of the S&D Group, said the idea was to collect data on underhanded lobbying efforts that could target the EU’s digital policy-making. EU – such as the use of third party industry associations. ‘ or consultants without clear disclosure, or even academics quietly funded to create favorable research – so they can be studied and called upon. They also want to make sure European lawmakers are better informed about the myriad ways tech giants could seek to influence them as they work to craft the rules the platform giants will have to abide by. .

Commenting on the initiative in a statement, Tang added, “As politicians, it is our duty to balance the interests of industry, civil society and society at large. Manipulation by shady lobbying is a threat not only to the development of proper laws, but to our entire democracy. That is why we need to shine the spotlight on all these wolves in sheep’s clothing and fight against faithless lobbying methods.

Last October, Tang was among a trio of MPs who filed complaints with the EU’s Transparency Register – accusing Amazon, Google and Meta (Facebook’s parent company) of using industry associations or groups. third parties claiming to represent startups and SMEs to whitewash their talking points and lobby. opaquely. Everyone involved has denied any wrongdoing – and that investigation is still ongoing. But Tang and others obviously want to keep the pressure on in the meantime.

The new reporting tool is hosted on the site. Staff and members of EU institutions are encouraged to use it to report suspicious or irregular things they have seen, for example forwarding unusual emails sent to them or suspicious advertisements they have targeted online.

LobbyLeaks is not really a hotline but rather an encrypted web form for submitting whistleblowers. The idea is to lower the barrier to reporting concerns. Including time constraints – since lobbying targets tend to be busy people. In addition, there is a guarantee of “total confidentiality” for all denunciations.

The two NGOs involved in the initiative, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and LobbyControl, will receive advice and investigate – seeking to establish patterns. And, ultimately, exposing questionable lobbying behavior and pushing for transparency rules to be changed if necessary.

Commenting in a statement, Bram Vranken, an activist and researcher to the CEO, accused Big Tech of devious lobbying in an attempt to maintain a “toxic” business model built on abusive exploitation:

Big Tech’s business model is toxic. It is based on aggressive surveillance advertising and data mining, deploying algorithmic content management systems that amplify misinformation and hateful content, and disenfranchise workers. Lobbyleaks will help expose the kind of deceptive and opaque influence that has become central to Big Tech’s lobbying tactics.

Lobbying that is not clearly disclosed as such undermines democratic accountability and due process, and risks – at the very least – misleading lawmakers. Including giving an advantage to those with the greatest resources to devote to promoting and funding a sprawling network of third-party “message spreaders.”

Last year, a report by the WCC and another civil society group, Global Witness, shed light on some of Big Tech’s recent lobbying in the EU – including in strategic areas like ad tracking. , where a number of adtech tech giants have aligned their lobbying to avoid the threat of a total ban added to the DSA.

In this case, they have prevailed: the EU institutions have accepted only partial restrictions on the use of personal data for advertising targeting, so the threat of a total ban on tracking and profiling was avoided.

During the DSA negotiations, some EU lawmakers also reported receiving hyper-targeted ads on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – such as posts pushing self-serving claims by Facebook that restrictions on tracking advertisements would be detrimental to SMEs – raising questions as to whether highly targeted advertising campaigns that single out EU lawmakers in Brussels who are working on (or following) relevant policy files constitute ‘lobbying’ in the formal sense or not (and should therefore be clearly disclosed in the transparency registers).

Tang’s office said the LobbyLeaks hotline aims both to shed more light on shady lobbying practices to track evolving tactics and to collect data that could be used to help inform lawmakers to determine whether changes to the EU transparency rules are needed to keep up with increasingly well-funded efforts to influence policy-making. Although those behind the hotline are not currently calling for changes to transparency laws. But let’s wait and see what LobbyLeaks digs up.

Some changes are already looming in the EU – via the transparency rules for political ads the Commission proposed in November 2021. The new rules will, for example, require political and interest-based ads to contain information about who has paid for courier. Although it’s unclear how effective they will be in cleaning up anti-democratic tactics like astroturfing.

While Big Tech’s EU lobbying has intensified massively during the current Commission term, thanks to major updates (and expansion) to the bloc’s digital rules, there has been a another major lobbying effort around the previous digital copyright reform. So the problem isn’t entirely new – and the tactics that seek to conceal a sponsor’s involvement in order to mask their self-interest and shield them from grassroots liability (and their positions from scrutiny) are of course even older. only that; it’s the same old dirty book as Big Tobacco.

But it’s clear there’s been a surge in lobbying given the vast sums currently being spent by Big Tech trying to shape the laws that will apply to them. And given the proliferation of a sprawling network of opaquely funded third parties, all perfectly aligned with the tech giants’ talking points.


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