Members of the European Parliament have lodged complaints against three tech giants, Amazon, Google and Meta, with the EU’s Transparency Register — aka, the oversight process that’s intended to track lobbying activity aimed at the bloc’s lawmakers — accusing the trio of breaching the lobbying transparency rules by using smaller front organizations to press their interests opaquely.
The complaints, which were reported earlier by Politico and Bloomberg, also take aim at a series of tech industry associations and lobby groups — including a number whose names imply they represent the interests of startups and small businesses — that the MEPs allege have been involved in a Big Tech astroturfing operation targeted at two major pieces of EU digital regulation, the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), per documents we’ve reviewed.
Tech trade association the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), online ad industry body the IAB Europe, and SME and startup lobby groups Allied for Startups, SME Connect and the Connected Commerce Council (3C) are also named in the astroturfing complaints — which have been filed by three social-democrat lawmakers: Paul Tang, René Rapsi and Christel Schaldemose.
The MEPs are calling for the accused tech giants’ access to the European Parliament to be revoked if their complaints are upheld. We understand nine complaints have been filed in total (two targeting Google).
While the DSA and the DMA have both now been adopted, the EU lawmakers remain concerned about the impact on future digital policymaking if non-transparent Big Tech policy influenceOps are not rooted out.
The MEPs’ complaints follow a report back in April, compiled by civil society groups Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Witness using freedom of information requests, that revealed how a raft of tech giants sought to influence the two major EU digital policy files — spending big on pushing self-interested amendments to the (then) draft regulations.
Some of this Big Tech lobbying activity included injecting detailed suggestions into late-stage closed-door policy discussions between EU institutions — presenting lawmakers with suggested wording for amendments aimed at watering down provisions that directly threaten their interests — such as in areas like tracking-based advertising. (In the event, the DSA and DMA were passed with some restrictions on tracking-based advertising, though not the outright ban a number of MEPs had been pushing for.)
The complaints also cite a Medium post by Georg Riekeles — a Brussels-based director of the European Policy Centre think tank (which lists a few tech giants as members itself) and a former EU official himself — who warned this summer that: “As the EU debated the DSA and DMA package, front groups and other forms of hidden lobbying were swarming. I dare say never before had Brussels seen efforts at such a scale and with such brazenness. Many of practices deployed are not only totally out of line with the established code of conduct in interest representation but also with the most basic ethical and behavioural principles in society.”
“As public scrutiny and research uncovered in the case of ‘Big Tobacco’, outsized vested interests create ecosystems of thought and influence to manipulate civil society and policymakers,” Riekeles’ blog post went on. “At this point, Big Tech’s interference strategies need to be systematically monitored, and actions taken to counter them. The EU’s capacity to act in defence of fundamental interests starts with the independence and transparency of EU institutions but requires also a wider societal ecosystem of tech control.”
Systematic monitoring of Big Tech lobbying is exactly what the EU lacks, the MEPs’ complaints suggest, as transparency rules that are intended to spotlight corporate lobbying are being systematically circumvented by the use of a sprawling network of third parties funded by (or otherwise press-ganged into alignment with) well-resourced tech giants in order to project their interests by making their talking points resemble a grassroots lobbying campaign, rather than what is actually behind the effort: Gigantic self-interest.
Such astroturfing tactics very obviously erode accountability and subvert democracy — enabling the corporate interests with the deepest pockets and greatest market power to build the most potent influence operations, by expanding the reach and interconnectedness of their third party networks through which they can channel and amplify their lobbying firepower while keeping their own brand name ‘clean’ at a safe distance.
A couple of lobby campaigns cited in the complaints — one called ‘Targeting Startups‘ (which is now busy taking aim at a fresh EU digital policy proposal, the Data Act); and a second called the ‘Coalition for Digital Ads of SMEs‘, which ostensibly promoted small business interests in tracking-based advertising — are shown in one of the documents as not themselves registered in the EU transparency register but having a long list of backers/funders; some of which are in the transparency register (including some entities that list Big Tech entities as their members/backers), while others are not, so their funding sources are not declared.
“You can only get an access badge for EU institutions [as a lobbyist] if you are registered [in the transparency register]. But as Google, Amazon and Meta are in the register they have agreed to abide by the codes of conduct. And the codes demand all registrees to not obstruct the register itself as well. So having another organization lobbying on their behalf is obstructing,” Tang told us, explaining how transparency concerns arise from this interlinked mesh of declared and non-declared interests lobbying EU policymakers.
“What we are dealing with here is all kinds of branch organizations / national organizations / EU lobby organizations etc, that are actively promoting the narrative coming from Big Tech — and the only thing we know is that someone called the 3C contacts us and if we look them up in the transparency register they are not connected to anyone,” he added.
TechCrunch contacted the three tech firms named in the MEPs’ complaints for comment.
At the time of writing, Meta had not responded. But Amazon and Google denied any breach of the EU lobbying rules.
Here are their statements:
A Google spokesperson: Transparency and openness are important values for Google in how it engages with the EU Institutions. For several years we have included extensive information on our lobbying activities in the transparency register. We are committed to transparent engagement and declare our sponsorship and partnerships with various organisations in a comprehensive list on the register’s website. Our partnership with the Connected Commerce Council is clearly and transparently listed on our declaration.
An Amazon spokesperson: In the EU, Amazon has not asked the Connected Commerce Council to lobby on the DMA, DSA or any other European legislation. Amazon does not work with the Connected Commerce Council in Europe.
Amazon did confirm it works with 3C in the U.S. — where the association’s website lists both Amazon and Google as “corporate partners”, and goes on to claim the pair “invest in supporting small businesses and provide several free and low-cost digital tools that help small business leaders run and grow their business” — but the ecommerce giant’s response essentially rejects the notion that any of its activity with 3C in the U.S. trickles across to the EU arm of the same organization. (Its spokesman declined to comment on our questions about that.)
We also contacted the five industry groups referenced in the MEPs’ complaint.
Four had responded at press time and they also denied any wrongdoing — with several flagging their listings in the transparency register as if the existence of a listing is itself a badge of compliance.
Allied for Startups’ Inés Moreno-Alonso said: “Allied for Startups is proud to be a member supported organisation made up of over 40 not for profit independent startup associations who represent entrepreneurs and innovation globally. Our policy priorities are defined in our mandate, which is voted on annually by all of these members and is clearly laid out in our bylaws. We have been listed in the transparency register since 2015 and fully comply with EU lobbying rules.”
While 3C’s executive director, Rob Retzlaff, told us it was investigated earlier this year by the register — but said the procedure closed in June without sanction.
“We received an inquiry from the Transparency Register in March 2022, we responded, and as of June 2, 2022, the case was closed, and our filing is accurate and to the satisfaction of the Transparency Register,” he said.
The 3C lobby group’s listing in the EU transparency register lists it as a U.S. nonprofit trade and business organization, with an address in Washington DC — and a claimed “single goal… to promote small businesses’ access to essential digital technologies and tools”.
No members are listed for 3C’s European operation, nor any memberships of any other organizations, but its listing states that its estimated annual costs listing also states that, as of 5/1/22, it is “no longer advocating with respect to EU policy” — a timing that shows the lobby operation wrapping up shortly after political agreements on the detail of the DMA and DSA had been secured, the latter by late April.
CCIA Europe and the IAB Europe also denied that expressing some public support for the aforementioned Targeting Startups campaign constituted any kind of EU transparency rule violation.
A CCIA Europe spokesperson told us:
CCIA Europe values transparency and adheres to the code of conduct that regulates the EU policy making process. CCIA has been a voluntary signatory to the EU Transparency Register since its launch more than a decade ago.
As is common practice for any Brussels-based industry association, CCIA Europe is regularly approached to co-sign joint letters or statements, usually together with dozens of other stakeholders.
CCIA’s involvement with Targeting Startups has been limited to a few joint statements that included many signatories. At no point was CCIA involved in the internal workings of Targeting Startups, nor have we ever supported them financially.
NB: The CCIA Europe lists Amazon, Google and Meta (among other tech giants) on its member page.
The IAB Europe also sent us this statement:
IAB Europe joined some of the publicly communicated actions within a ‘Targeting Startups’ coalition, but the suggestion that IAB Europe would pretend to represent anyone other than its own members is absurd. We would need to see the purported complaints to comment further.
The IAB Europe also lists the Big Tech trio — Amazon, Google and Meta — in its more sprawling member directory. So its straw-man line that it “would pretend to represent anyone other than its own members” is, in this context, certainly absurd.
Update: SME Connect has also responded to our request for comment. In a statement it told us:
In SME Connect we believe in collaborative efforts and evidence based policy making and will continue representing views of SME’s in the EU policy debates.
We are organised as a network which brings together over 27 organizations across Europe and gives them a platform to engage issues in Brussels. This includes Friends of SMEs which allow supportive large companies to come together and engage with SME Connect members.
SME Connect is registered in EU Transparency Register.
Coalition for Digital Ads of SMEs (CDA) has been established by 14 organizations that represent a common position on the topic of digital advertisement. CDA has always been transparent about being part of SME Connect.
In recent years, the EU has emerged as the global center of digital policymaking as regional lawmakers have managed to achieve some form of consensus on a flurry of major regulations — at a time when their lawmaking counterparts over the pond (and in the U.K.) have, all-too-often, been thwarted by domestic disagreement or other political distractions on how to regulate the Internet.
That means that Brussels has become a major target for Big Tech lobbying, with a report last year finding hundreds of companies, groups and business associations shelling out a total of €97M (~$115M) annually to try to influence EU institutions — with ten tech giants accounting for a third of that (declared) spend (a list led by Google and Facebook/Meta).
However, as that report pointed out, astroturfing tactics indicate that Big Tech’s real lobbying budget is far greater than that as funds are distributed and deployed to scores of less known third parties that tech giants have links to. So robust investigation of tech giants’ long-reach influence networks does look like essential work for upholding democratic accountability.