The digital age’s constantly changing landscape has recently seen the function of large tech companies evolve beyond market-leading innovators. With increased power as a result of successful profit combined with a commercial stake in the regulations of online spaces, large-scale tech companies have started looking at ways in which they may leverage their monetary influence to align policy with their business ambitions.
A major way in which they seek to achieve this is through lobbying. Lobbying in recent years has become a staple mechanism through which tech companies indirectly influence policy and in doing so they fuse commercial gain with the democratic process.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that tech firms will prioritise the well-being of their consumers over profit. The ability of these companies to make legislative changes to the regulation of online spaces is therefore an issue for users and consumers who are unaware of the changes occurring on their devices and platforms. However, this inherently depends on the distinct changes made, the motives behind them and their impact on the user’s experience and privacy.
What is lobbying?
Lobbying is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in government, most commonly legislation or members of regulatory bodies. Influence like this can be done through many different means which are often tailored to the needs of the regulatory body. Methods of lobbying may include public relations campaigns, organising research and information for policymakers, communicating directly with the regulatory body or its members and importantly, financially supporting politicians and by extension, their policies.
In defining lobbying, it is important to recognise that the process can be conducted by individuals, corporations and organisations, all with the goal of promoting their specific interests or goals. Lobbying is not exclusive to the tech industry and can occur in relation to many political contexts such as climate change, gun control, healthcare, etc.
In the current political climate surrounding online regulation, lobbying is most commonly conducted by large tech companies (colloquially referred to as the ‘Tech Giants’) who financially back political candidates that support their commercial interests.
Who are the giants?
The tech giants or ‘Big Tech’ are a collection of the most dominant information and technology companies. The most prominent of these are big American companies including Facebook (now Meta), Tesla, Alphabet (Google), Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and many more.
In July of 2023, Amazon, Meta and Alphabet ranked the highest among these giants in terms of spending on federal lobbying in the U.S. in that order. Specifically, Amazon with $9.81 million U.S. dollars, Meta with $9.5 million U.S. dollars and Alphabet with $6.41 million U.S. dollars. These companies and their respective CEO’s act as the major players in the lobbying issue that consumers are facing.
How are they influencing consumers?
The tech as mentioned above companies are influencing their consumers through lobbying as the guidelines and regulations they are attempting to manipulate directly relate to the ways consumers are free to interact with their platforms and offer their data.
A common example would be by relaxing data privacy laws and policies, consumers are given less control over how their data is collected and used. Due to the user guidelines being often intentionally arduous to read and time-consuming, consumers are unfairly positioned to miss policy changes that may heavily impact their decision to participate in using the companies’ technologies or platforms.
Mark Zuckerburg’s $4.6 million U.S. dollars in federal lobbying in the first 3 months of 2023 is a perfect example of this as a large portion of this money has gone towards lobbying specifically against industry regulations by sending funds to “dark money” groups that align with Meta’s political agendas.
Why is this significant?
The fashion of lobbying currently seen conducted by the Tech Giants is significant as it draws on the questionable morality of the investing companies specifically with regard to whether they will influence policy that not only seeks to improve their profit but also considers user’s wellbeing.
What platforms are impacted the most and how?
Understanding the platforms that are being manipulated is an integral part of the contentious issue of tech company lobbying.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all being impacted heavily by various policy changes pertaining to content moderation, privacy regulations and misinformation. Search engines like Google are another example as lobbying efforts are often focused on changing search algorithms and the information they have available to draw upon alongside targeted advertising policies. Moreover, E-commerce platforms have gained the attention of lobbyists looking to control online markets which has a subsequent effect on competition with in-person markets operating under different laws.
Among others, these areas of concern are the most prominent in relation to the influence of the tech industry.
Concerns regarding tech giants acting as lobbyists mainly revolve around the governing principal of conflicting interest. Specifically, the conflict between the relationship of the company and consumer as previously mentioned.
The ability to draw on a significant pool of funds to influence policies that directly tie into the safety of their users with the goal of financial gain at the cost of consumer privacy is inherently concerning.
Additionally, having users place their trust in a corporation that is unlikely to champion their interests is an unrealistic business strategy, as these companies are aware. As a result, they must hide these changes from their users through difficult to navigate community guidelines and policies. This attempt at communication is near censorship and highlights the deceitful relationship generated when the interests of the company are not in the interest of its users.
The unfortunate reality is that corporate lobbying almost always makes the commercial interests of the company and profit making as a priority over the interest of the public and their consumers (Popiel, 2018).
Counterarguments: are there benefits to lobbying in this industry?
To offer a counterargument, many believe lobbying in the tech industry has a variety of benefits. The people who believe this often are partial to protecting the principles of the free-market where government intervention and regulation in general is limited.
Moreover, It should be noted that lobbying is legal and at times necessary as apart of the democratic process. Often for many corporations and users, lobbying is seen as a way in which consumers and organisations feel they are represented on a political level. However, this is acting under the assumption that consumers and organisations interests are aligned which in many cases is not true when commercial gain is involved (Popiel, 2018).
Practicality: what can be done and will it work?
Many countries have recognised the potential negative influence that the Tech Giants possess in relation to policy reforms affecting their consumers and from the nations’ perspective, their citizens. As such countries are implementing counteractive strategies aimed at mainly promoting transparency between the companies and their users.
For example, The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a set of data privacy laws which aim to lend consumers more power and control over their data online and provide protection against companies misusing it. While this measure has seen success in granting power to their consumers through issuing fines against Tech Giants, efficacy of many other actions is questionable and difficult to measure (Sartor, 2022).
Given the fact that many tech companies are international, enforcing regulations on them can be difficult as different countries have different laws. As such, implementing laws that influence these tech companies consistently through the various countries they operate in can be challenging. Moreover, the large amounts of money tech companies have means that some argue that the fines issued aren’t significant enough of a deterrent.
Ultimately, the best action to take against the unjust manipulation of policy seen is to further encourage transparency with the public so that people know what is influencing their government’s decisions, with the idea that the democratic process will protect the rights of the citizen (Gurría, 2014). This in combination with new regulation laws would help build more trust between the platform users and their governments, leading to policy implementation that is more effective at protecting user rights (Gurría, 2014).
What is the final verdict?
Although lobbying is an integral part in the democratic process, the process is weak to manipulation by financially large tech companies who have proven to be more focused on their financial interests than the interest of users and their safety when using their platforms. Moving forward, transparency between the company and the consumer is key.
How Tech Companies Have Become Lobbyists in the Digital Age and Why It Matters to You by John McGregor-Thew is marked with CC0 1.0
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