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Time to Call out Big Tech’s Political Soft Power

“Influence is about the kinds of questions you ask yourself

Within the last couple of years, journalistic media have investigated Big Techs influence on journalism. But not only that: Big Tech’s soft power is also directed at academia and politicians and at – what seems to be – neutral organizations or think tanks.

This is documented in a new journalistic investigation by the New Statesman. It claims that during the last five years, six leading academic institutes in the EU have taken tens of millions of pounds of funding from Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft to research issues linked to these Big Tech companies’ business models. The research issues span from privacy and data protection to AI ethics and competition in digital markets. The investigation points to “an ethical quandary where the subject of research is also often the primary funder of it”. 

And although several of the academic beneficiaries state that receiving money from Google is no problem at all because, it does not affect the results, an anonymous source says: “Influence is not just distorting the result in favour of [Big Tech],but the kind of questions you ask yourself.” 

Big Tech as Political Lobbyist Big Spenders

Google and other big tech companies are not just grand patrons, when it comes to journalism and academia. They are also big spenders in Brussels according to a report by Transparency International from February 2021. It focuses on Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft and their activities in Brussels, Paris, Dublin, and London. According to Raphael Kergueno, Policy Officer at Transparency International EU and lead author of the report:

It is clear that tech giants devote significant resources to influencing European Union policy. For example, Google’s in-house Brussels lobbying budget has increased by 360 per cent since 2014 and we continue to see big tech companies ranking among the lobbyists with the most high-level meetings with the European Commission.” 

When Big Tech Supports ‘Neutral’ Organisations

This report also documents that big tech also often makes extensive use of professional consultancies and external lobbyists: “26 consultancies and law firms (present on the EU Transparency Register) receive between 3 million and nearly 8 million euros per year from the big five, which is not automatically included in their in-house total”.

Besides this big tech companies also: “spin their web through sector associations and think-tanks, with the five corporations studied declaring memberships of 66 organisations in this category”.

This is confirmed in yet another investigative article published in Bloomberg Law Facebook, Google Fund Groups Shaping Federal Privacy Debate, where it is documented how Libertarian and conservative learning think-tanks take money from Facebook and Google just as other “civil liberty” platforms do. The screenshot below is from the report. But the number of organizations are many more.

In this article Jeffrey Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy (a public interest group that does not accept donations from Google or Facebook) points out that: “The tech giants have funded scores of nonprofits, including consumer and privacy groups, and academics (…) Their influence is strong“.

To Much Power and Influence

Andrew Orlowski, Daily Telegraph Business Columnist puts it this way: “Foundations contribute much more than the companies directly, but remain a useful way to launder money and influence” (On Twitter August 17. 2021).

And this ‘money and influence’ is something that a majority of American citizens are critical of according to report by Pew Reseach Center from July 2021. It shows that a “Growing shares of Americans think major technology companies should face more government regulation, and a majority say that these firms have too much economic power and influence.” Some 56% of Americans think major technology companies should be regulated more than they are now, and 68% believe these firms have too much power and influence in the economy.

Maybe it is time to listen. And here the circle closes. Journalistic media have an obligation to report their own financial strings – but at the same time remember to disclose financial strings of their sources that is otherwise perceived as “independent” organisations.

As the well known forensic cyber psychologist Mary Aiken writes in her book The Cyber Effect (2016): “In a field as rapidly evolving as the Internet, and the technology using it, we need good journalism more than ever.

Five years after this quote it is more true than ever – and “god journalism” is independent and transparent.

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