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Big Tech’s Soft Power To Be Investigated in Brussels

Photo Credit: Mew
Tech companies like Google, Meta, and Amazon have misled EU regulators by lobbying through smaller shadow organisations according to the Danish MEP, Christel Schaldemose writes Politico. And now she wants to investigate the soft power of big tech.

The exercise of soft power, for example, when big companies hide in the shadow of smaller organisations, is deeply problematic and at least as problematic as the more obvious corruption scandals. This is the view of Christel Schaldemose, who wants to launch an investigation into soft power in the wake of the major corruption scandal in which the Vice-President of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, was jailed in December on corruption charges. 

In an interview with, Christel Schaldemose says:

The most important thing is transparency. We discovered with the DSA that sometimes this was missing and then you can’t create balance and hear all sides. Sometimes we wondered who the different organisations were. Their views puzzled us. They were very much on the same page as the big tech giants. Also with some of the bigger industry organisations, we realised that they were adopting the views of big tech.”

Particularly during the work on the DSA, the Digital Service Act, politicians were exposed to the soft power of big tech. Google, Apple, Facebook, for example, tried to neutralise the EU Parliament’s proposals to limit surveillance advertisement and extend external control over how platforms’ systems/algorithms either amplify or de-prioritise content. According to revelations by the Corporate Europe Observatory in spring 2022, big tech tried to pit EU institutions against each other; to become more technical and offer changes to the text; to use meetings to access information that was not available to the public; and they invited top executives to meetings with the Commissioners and invited them to secret dinners.

You need to Know Who you are Talking to

Lobbying and advocacy are all a natural part of democracy. But for Schaldemose, transparency and balance are important, she says;

And that requires that you know who you are talking to“. 

As a politician, it can be difficult when big, powerful technology companies either set up or support ‘shadow organisations’ that is called something more neutral than, say, Google or Meta. Or when they become members of existing organisations or, for example, financially support think-tanks, buying access to the organisation and allowing them to draw the line internally. While it’s not always the big tech’s first priorities’ that come through in such a lobbying process or wider advocacy, big tech can put a lid on the quirky views that smaller member organisations might have, Schaldemose points out: 

“In doing so, the big tech companies can prevent others from doing something that might bother them. That’s where soft power really works. I think that when we look back in the future, we will see that a lot of what the big tech giants do will have a big detrimental effect. A bit like we saw with the tobacco industry: it’s about pushing and shoving regulation,” Schaldemose says. That’s why she believes much more knowledge is needed about what their particular ability to influence and create narratives and access is all about.  

Balance is key

Schaldemose herself says she always tries to think of balances, which means that if she has heard one side, she must also hear the other. She compares the ways in which US technology companies exercise forms of invisible power to those of the tobacco industry. But while long books have been written about the tobacco industry’s ways of evading regulation, this is far from the case with the tech industry. 

That’s why it’s so important to get a clearer picture of who is represented in various organisations and think tanks, and who pays for them: We need to follow-the-money, says the MEP. The investigation should take place as soon as the smoke from the more headline-grabbing corruption scandal has cleared. 

The interview with Christel Schaldemose was held under the auspices of the “Big Tech’s Soft Power In Denmark” project, supported by the Drejers Fond, the Borgerretsfonden, the Jyllands-Posten Fonden, the Politikens Fond and the Culture and Information Association, which will culminate in a journalistic report to be published by in 2023. The idea is to take a dig at how big tech supports academia, publicist media and think tanks. This applies both financially and in terms of creating narratives, formulating policies, etc. The aim is to equip Danish decision-makers to better understand how big tech works.
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UPDATE 2ND FEBRUARY: Dutch MP launches website for EU officials to report ‘shady lobbying’ from big tech. The Guardian