As MEPs host the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen this afternoon, they need to step up their challenge to the surveillance capitalists.
Documents which have emerged in a legal action by several US states against Google have revealed that the company boasted about delaying a European Union regulation on ‘ePrivacy’, advanced in 2017 as a proposal to protect users from online commercial surveillance. Amazon has also claimed victory in this battle.
At the same time, Facebook has been rocked by a huge document leak by a former staff member turned whistleblower. Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on surveillance by the US National Security Agency, has it right: European lawmakers, data regulators and privacy authorities must recognise that it is time to revise their approach to internet giants, who have been actively and intentionally sabotaging proposals for digital reform and regulation.
‘We have been successful in slowing down and delaying the [ePrivacy regulation] process and have been working behind the scenes hand in hand with the other companies.’ So crowed Google in a 2019 memo, prepared for a meeting with Facebook and Microsoft, apparently to discuss how to co-ordinate efforts to forestall new US privacy rules. The corporate triumphalism, reported last month by Politico among others, came to light in the midst of a court case brought by state prosecutors against Google for anti-competitive behaviour.
It comes almost a year after Politico reported on internal Amazon documents, which trumpeted having diluted the European Parliament’s stance on the ePrivacy proposal. Amazon gloated: ‘Our campaign has ensured that the ePrivacy proposal will not get broad support in the European Parliament. Our aim is to weaken the Parliament’s negotiation position with the Council, which is more sympathetic to industry concerns.’
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The ePrivacy regulation has been the target of intense corporate lobbying since its conception, with companies which rely on surveillance advertising—including Big Tech but also publishers and telecommunications firms—especially active. An EU insider told Corporate Europe Observatory that this was ‘one of the worst lobby campaigns I have ever seen’.
The industry campaign has been characterised by hyperbolic claims but MEPs largely saw through them and agreed a privacy-friendly position on ePrivacy. As Amazon correctly stated, however, the member states in the Council of the EU have been much more receptive to the lobby onslaught.
It took the council four years to come to a joint position, one full of industry-friendly loopholes: on metadata processing, data retention, cookie walls and a refusal to allow ‘do not track’ default browser settings. These undermine online-privacy protection for citizens. The file is now the subject of trilogue negotiations among the council, the parliament and the European Commission, with the outcome uncertain.
The latest revelations about Google’s ePrivacy lobbying have caused a stir but might be overshadowed by the news affecting another technology giant—the trove of documents leaked by the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. These show how the company lied to the public and hid research about its potential impact on teenagers and the way its algorithms amplified hate and misinformation across the world. If there is a thread running through the revelations it is that Facebook continuously chose profits over the public good.
Media stories have also indicated that Facebook’s content policies are under the influence of its own lobbying team—concerned most of all with preventing regulatory and political scrutiny of the company.
As MEPs hear directly from Haugen today, they should keep in mind how the stories about Facebook, Google and Amazon are connected.They all speak to the impact of corporate power and how lobbying has helped these Big Tech behemoths protect a business model which has dangerous implications for people’s lives.
As the academic Shoshana Zuboff writes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, lobbying—alongside establishing relationships with elected politicians, a steady revolving door and a campaign for cultural and academic influence—has fortified Big Tech’s business model, built on violating privacy and unfairly dominating the market and flourishing without challenge.
In August, Corporate Europe Observatory and LobbyControl reviewed the footprint of lobbying of EU institutions. The wide universe of actors was heavily dominated by technology companies and online platforms. Together the top ten tech firms spent over €32 million lobbying the EU in just one year—more than the biggest finance, pharmaceutical and fossil-fuel companies. Big Tech has the deepest pockets, the widest access to policy-makers and a chorus of funded organisations, ranging from lobby groups and consultancies to think-tanks and academics.
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Canary in the coalmine
The success of corporations in shaping the ePrivacy discussions is the canary in the coalmine of Big Tech influence in Europe. It shows how, despite politicians’ loud public promises to rein them in, these companies can still flex their muscles and prevent much-needed reforms. EU policy-makers should keep this in mind during the ePrivacy trilogue and the lobbying blitz surrounding new rules for platforms covering content moderation, surveillance advertising and market power.
As Snowden suggests, it is time for the EU institutions to revise the way they deal with Big Tech and its allies. They can start by proactively seeking out those who have less resources: small and medium enterprises, independent academics, civil society, community groups. They should restrict the technology companies’ lobbying to public hearings, so the firms can be held to account for their claims.
But Big Tech influence is not just a problem in Brussels. Member-state governments need to come clean too about their links. The council must no longer offer a sympathetic ear to the industry, standing in the way of public-interest regulation to protect citizens.
Margarida Silva is a researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based corporate-power watchdog. Margarida follows EU tech lobby battles and campaigns for lobby and ethics regulations.