There is no simple way to quantify the increasing tension between European regulators and U.S. tech giants, but the massive expansion of lobbying by tech companies of the European Commission is a telling barometer.
According to data compiled from public filings by Transparency International EU, a non-profit government corruption watchdog, the amount spent by U.S. tech companies lobbying the EC jumped 147% from 2014 to 2017. And the number of U.S. tech companies registered to lobby has grown to 30 last year, from 11 four years ago.
“We definitely see a very stark increase for budgets and presence on the ground from U.S. tech companies,” Daniel Freund, head of advocacy for the organization, said.
The total tech EC lobbying spending of €22.345 million ($27.71 million) by these 30 companies in 2017 is just over half of what the Big 5 tech companies spent on U.S lobbying in 2017. Indeed, Google and Facebook combined spent more in the U.S. than the total U.S. tech lobbying in Brussels.
On the other hand, the European numbers don’t include direct lobbying of member nations because many don’t require such public disclosures.
Still, it’s the rapid growth and aggressiveness that’s turning heads in Europe, Freund said. The charge is led by Google, which topped all U.S. tech lobbyists in Europe last year with €5.25 million in spending, up 320 percent since 2014. Last year was the first time Google outspent Microsoft, a company that learned the hard way not to ignore Europe when it was slapped in 2004 with a then-record antitrust fine.
In Europe, Google has so far been the most scrutinized company by regulators, in large part thanks to the multiple antitrust cases it is fighting, but Facebook is clearly under increasing scrutiny since the news of the Cambridge Analytica data breach.
Proposed European regulations around privacy, fake news, copyright, intellectual property, and transparency for online platforms could have profound impacts on the way American tech companies do business in the vital European market.
Facebook and Apple have been slower to engage, a decision both may yet regret in the face of this regulatory wave. Both spent €1 million each last year. On the other hand, Uber only registered in 2015, but has seen its spending rise 1300% to €700,000 last year. It also recruited former EC digital commissioner Neelie Kroes to be a paid member of its public policy advisory board.
As happens in the U.S., tech firms are hiring staff members from the European Parliament to work on their lobbying teams. And their also deploying so-called “soft power” strategies, such as making various donations to public programs, funding research organizations as well academics, and highlighting the economic contributions they make in terms of employment and taxes paid.