You searched online for something specific and a little later your social media feed is full of ads for just that – sound familiar? Businesses advertise online to users based on personal data collected by big tech companies.
This targeted advertising allows technology firms to capitalize personal data and select ads that fit a user's profile. In recent years, targeted advertising has also been at the centre of scandals with the 2016 US Presidential election and the 2018 Brexit vote.
In 2021 in a letter to politicians, 50 NGOs called for an end to targeted ads, arguing that it "facilitates systemic manipulation and discrimination, poses serious national security risks, funds disinformation and fraud".
The Digital Services Act (DSA), a law package recently approved by the EU, brought attention to the issue of targeted ads. This long-awaited legislation was initially developed under the narrative of protecting and safeguarding online spaces for Europeans. Since it was proposed, lobbyists have focused on preventing a ban on targeted ads.
This investigation sheds light on the lobby moves made by tech giants during the DSA negotiations. Data and analysis provide new insights into the influential game of Google, Meta (former Facebook) & Co. between January 2020 and March 2022.
A missed opportunity
In early drafts of the DSA in 2020, the EU Parliament recommended to "assess options for regulating targeted advertising, including a phase-out leading to a prohibition" of the pervasive practice.
The final agreement of the DSA fell short of this goal – only ads on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or trade union participation are banned.
"On personalised advertising, we have not gone as far as we would like. I really think that's partly because of that gigantic lobbying campaign," admits a European parliament official who preferred to remain anonymous.
"Google, like other companies, is afraid of being regulated, or of being subject to stricter rules, as they are now with the Digital Services Act," explains journalist and author Alexander Fanta.
Move#1: Pay to play
The tech industry is the highest-spending lobby sector in Brussels. Each year, Big Tech firms spend around 100 million euros lobbying EU institutions in various ways. The "Big Five"
– Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple and Microsoft – spent one-third of that amount in 2021. "If you just have money to set up things, events, to pay lobbyists, then your voice just gets stronger," confirms the EP official.
Move#2: Get on the inside track
The movement of employees between positions of power in the public and private sector is known as "revolving doors" – and a growing problem in Brussels. This investigation tracked the employment history of registered lobbyists. More than half of the registered lobbyists working for the "Big Five" have previously worked at EU institutions.
"In Big Tech’s recruiting ads for lobbyists, experience in the public sector was extremely welcome," states Margarida Silva who worked at Corporate Europe Observatory.
One case is that of Google’s lobbyist Andrea Busetto. His LinkedIn profile lists recent working experience as a policy advisor to an unnamed "MEP" and "political group". Archived staff registers reveal that Busetto worked nearly eight years for Liberal MEP Marco Zullo. During that time, he held multiple roles connected to the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) responsible for DSA negotiations. “They real…