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Uber Files throw harsh light on lack of transparency in lobbying

Karlin Lillington: Whistleblowing is not a regulatory strategy and influencing needs tighter controls

With the release of the Uber Files, yet another tech industry whistleblower has provided critical insights into the hidden operations of a corporate giant. Equally important, the 124,000 documents supplied by Uber’s former chief EU lobbyist, the Irish-born Mark McGann, shine a needed spotlight on the weak, easily dodged governance structures that nations such is Ireland erect to place basic accountability requirements on corporate lobbying activities.

As my colleagues Simon Carswell and Arthur Beesley have shown, Uber worked hard to persuade the Government here to do its bidding. It acted mostly using the lobbying company of former Department of Finance secretary general John Moran.

The revelations provide extensive details of Uber’s past Irish activities in a window that extended from 2014 until 2017, during which the fast-expanding company was trying to get a foothold in the Irish taxi market and wished to have Irish regulatory structures changed. Uber engaged in both hard and soft lobbying – ie official, and not-so-official – not all of which is accounted for as mandated in the public Irish lobby record, according to Carswell and Beesley’s reading of those requirements.

One of the more bizarre emerging details was that Uber managed to get, apparently via Moran, some lines it had scripted about the so-called “sharing economy” into the 2016 Fine Gael election manifesto. “Sharing economy” has a deceptively warm and positive sound, in contrast to its other name, the gig economy, which more accurately marks the insecure, benefits-free, vulnerable short-termism of this form of casual work.

Lobbying in itself is not a crime, and is a routine part of the policymaking process for governments, involving corporates, and indeed, citizen-based non-governmental organisations. Policymakers need to hear perspectives.

Tech lobbying

But businesses have supersized government access through lawyers, policy wonks and influential lobbyists. Non-profits and citizen groups lack the political clout of a former department secretary, much less that of, say, a former leader of a political party – such as Nick Clegg’s new top executive career at Facebook/Meta.

Tech lobbying in the 1990s to the early noughties was small-scale stuff. Microsoft only spent $2 million on all its US lobbying in 1997, despite being one of the most valuable global companies. Losing the huge antitrust case brought against it by the US department of justice not long afterwards changed the entire tech industry lobby landscape, as companies began to prioritise political influence.

Even in 2003, a young and not yet deep-pocketed Google only spent $80,000 on lobbying. Google spent $9.6 million on US lobbyists last year.

By 2016, the tech sector dominated by US-based multinationals was outspending Wall Street on Washington lobbying by a two to one margin. The sector also gained a massive foothold in Washington following Barack Obama’s election, after his phenomenal campaign using then-nascent social media platforms and other technologies. Tech companies were widely feted. Hundreds of former technology company staffers moved across to work in the Obama administration.

Influence and money

The EU has also been swamped with tech lobby influence and money. A forceful influx began during the development of the tech-sector-impacting General Data Protection Regulation, with regulatory and operational implications that still were missed initially (and bafflingly) by many corporate lawyers and policy heads that I met at the time.

A 2021 report from EU watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory examining the role and influence of big tech’s lobbying in the EU found that 612 tech-related organisations were spending over €97 million annually lobbying EU institutions.

“This makes tech the biggest lobby sector in the EU by spending, ahead of pharma, fossil fuels, finance and chemicals,” it says. A third came from just 10 tech companies: Vodafone, Qualcomm, Intel, IBM, Amazon, Huawei, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google.

The lobbying blitz is here to stay, especially now that the tech sector has realised the expansive influence a single piece of EU regulation, the GDPR, could have globally, forcing operations outside the EU to rise to EU standards. Many more huge EU regulatory measures affecting the sector are on the way in areas from commerce to privacy to copyright, and their national transpositions will, of course, also focus lobbying efforts at individual EU nations. Ireland, with its outsized tech regulatory role, will no doubt be in the lobbying crosshairs of many companies.

That’s why lobbying demands transparency. The Uber Files show how, both internationally and in Ireland, existing laws and frameworks for chronicling lobbying activity were and are functional failures. How easy it is to lobby off the record a head of government, a minister, a department official at home or abroad. How paltry are the constraints on when senior officials or politicians can move into lucrative lobbying careers.

And how little – how very, very little – we ever know unless a well-placed corporate employee eventually feels remorse, departs with a document cache and becomes a whistleblower. But whistleblowing is not a regulatory strategy. We need far better controls at national and EU level.

Read our full coverage of The Uber Files