A group of MEPs are launching a website for European parliament staff and EU officials to raise the alarm about “shady lobbying” by big tech firms and other interest groups.
Paul Tang, a Dutch Social Democrat MEP who is co-leading the initiative, said the “lobby leaks hotline” would be an early warning system and was necessary as the parliament had faced “shady lobbying” from powerful tech companies seeking to influence its decisions. He cited practices such as so-called astroturfing, where large companies use front organisations to represent their interests by the back door.
The “hotline” – an encrypted website, lobbyleaks.eu – will enable anyone to leave anonymous tips about suspicious lobbying tactics. It is modelled on a German initiative, and tips will be investigated by the German NGO LobbyControl and a Brussels-based campaign group, Corporate Europe Observatory, which monitors attempts to influence the EU institutions.
Tang, an MEP since 2014, said lobbying was “part and parcel of the work of politics” but became problematic when interest groups attempted to hide behind front organisations or targeted politicians with personalised ads.
When lawmakers were negotiating the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act, landmark legislation to regulate large internet companies, he had expected intense interest from affected companies but had not bargained for the “unconventional lobbying” that came his way.
Tang only found out after the laws had been passed the extent to which he and other MEPs had been “bombarded” with targeted adverts on their social media. “After the legislation [passed], we concluded that there was shady lobbying going on,” he said.
He also encountered “underground lobbying” from organisations claiming to be the voice of small and medium-sized companies (SMEs), despite being funded by big tech firms.
After that experience, he and two fellow Social Democrat lawmakers made a complaint to the EU transparency register last October, accusing nine industry associations of “impersonating” SMEs while failing to be open about the big tech firms that led or bankrolled their organisations.
The EU transparency register is a database of interest groups, companies and individuals that seek to influence EU decision-making. Managed by the three main EU institutions – the European Commission, the EU council and the European parliament – the transparency register has nearly 12,500 entries. Being on the register is often presented as a badge of legitimacy; lobbyists can only gain access passes to the European parliament if they are on the database.
Tang said any organisation that had misrepresented itself should be removed from the register.
The MEPs’ complaints were prompted, in part, by a Guardian article by a former European Commission official, Georg Riekeles, who recounted business efforts to dilute EU regulation on targeted advertising. Brussels “had never seen” so many SME and startup organisations turn up to lobby, he wrote. Small and medium-sized enterprises would suffer most from a ban on tracking ads, it was argued.
Riekeles named several industry groups involved in such lobbying, such as SME Connect and Allied for Start ups. SME Connect is linked to Friends of SMEs, whose members include Amazon and Google. Allied for Start ups, which calls itself “a global voice for the startup community”, is sponsored by a 14-strong business council that includes Amazon, Google and other big tech companies.
After the complaints were issued, Amazon and Google denied any breach of EU lobbying rules, in statements to the website TechCrunch. Industry associations including SME Connect and Allied for Startups also denied wrongdoing.
Riekeles said he had no reason to doubt the sincerity of the organisations, but argued that they failed to be transparent about who they represented. “These links are surely a matter of public interest, yet they are often not publicised,” he said.
The Corporate Europe Observatory documented these practices in a 2021 report that found that 612 tech companies and business associations spent €97m (£86m) a year lobbying the EU, making the sector the largest lobbying force in Brussels, ahead of oil and gas, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Bram Vranken, a campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, said the big five tech firms – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – spent nearly €27m a year lobbying the EU, figures based on their latest reports to the EU transparency register.
“[Technology companies] are funding a whole ecosystem of organisations from thinktanks, interest groups to front groups. They have a lot of potential to set the agenda and to weaken the regulation which is in the making,” he said. “Lobbyleaks will help to expose this kind of deceptive and opaque influence that has become central to big tech’s lobbying tactics.”
The website is also prompted by MEPs’ experience of making complaints to the EU transparency register. Tang said he feared that that organisation, run by a secretariat of nine full-time officials, was understaffed.
EU officials at the transparency register are yet to reach a judgment on the nine complaints launched by Tang last October. A spokesperson for the European parliament said they were unable to disclose any information about the complaints, including the timing of any decision. The spokesperson said they were not able to give an opinion on whether the secretariat was understaffed.
Tang said MEPs would be soon be debating important regulation affecting tech companies, including legal proposals to combat child sexual abuse. “Sometimes you need a quick response to these complaints. So this is why we also have the lobby leaks hotline, because you want to have an early warning system. You don’t want to discover after the file.”
The website is also backed by the French radical-left MEP Manon Aubry and the German Green Daniel Freund, a former campaigner with Transparency International. Organisers hope other MEPs from across the political spectrum will announce their support in the coming days.