Google is making a final attempt to change the EU’s incoming laws on Big Tech with a flurry of ads, emails and targeted social media posts targeting politicians and officials in Brussels.
As EU policymakers put the finishing touches on the Digital Markets Act (DMA), executives at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley are stepping up their efforts to water down parts of the legislation that they fear could have a serious impact on their business .
“Top executives in California have known about the DMA all along, but they are only now waking up,” said one Google insider.
The campaign includes direct recruitment by Google, but also by various trade associations that fund the search engine giant.
Kim van Sparrentak, a Dutch MP, said she had noticed a noticeable escalation in recruitment in recent weeks, with the message that the restriction of Google would harm small businesses.
She said she was invited to discuss her views with Google, at a time of her choice, and was invited to an event hosted by Google on the benefits of digital marketing to small businesses.
She was also advocated by the Connected Commerce Council, whose partners include Google and Amazon, with a letter signed by small business owners saying, “Please do not make it more difficult for my business.”
Other EPs and officials said their Twitter feeds were recently filled with ads from technology lobby groups on issues that Google particularly cares about. “My feed is on exaggeration,” said one EU diplomat.
One campaign against a proposed ban on targeted advertising, which appeared on Twitter and in the trade press, was led by IAB Europe.
“I am being targeted by an almost unrecognizable advertisement aimed at EU officials that promotes false information and refers exclusively to studies by IAB,” wrote Alderik Oosthoek, a policy adviser to the European Parliament. on Twitter.
The Digital Markets Act, which has so far made smooth progress through the EU Parliament and is likely to come into force at the beginning of 2023, aims to combat the power of Big Tech “gatekeepers”; companies like Google whose platforms dominate the online economy. Last week, Germany’s competition watchdog formally defined Google as a “gatekeeper”, opening it up for stricter domestic supervision.
Google is concerned that the legislation will prevent it from promoting businesses it owns, such as its travel and hospitality comparison services, on its search results pages, a practice known as “self-preference”.
This could force Google to “fundamentally change the design of general search pages,” said Thomas Hoppner, of law firm Hausfeld.
The sense of urgency at Google has been exacerbated by a significant law defeat late last year when the General Court in Luxembourg upheld an antitrust fine of € 2.42 billion against the company for promoting its own shopping comparison service over its competitors in search results.
In the weeks following the ruling, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, discussed the matter and upcoming technology regulations with Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s digital and competition chief, in a virtual meeting.
Separately, Kent Walker, Alphabet’s head of global affairs, held similar meetings with other high-level regulators, including Vera Jourova, the EU’s vice president.
Thomas Vinje, Legal Adviser at FairSearch, said the court ruling and DMA are a threat to Google because “its business model depends on harming competitors and favoring its own services in its search results”.
Although it has made some adjustments to the initial fine of 2017, Google has not yet introduced any further changes to its search pages in light of the Luxembourg ruling, which is expected to appeal.
Separately, Google is concerned about a proposed EU ban on targeted advertising printed by one bloc of MEPs, although the common position is currently not a full ban.
“The MPs’ position on targeted advertising is crazy,” one person close to Google said, adding that such a ban would lead to more pop-ups asking permission.
According to the EU Transparency Register, Google has invested around € 6 million in support-related activities in 2020, and it has around eight internal lobbyists in Brussels, as well as external lawyers and consultants. Last year, it was forced to apologize to Thierry Breton, the EU Commissioner responsible for digital regulation, after it emerged that Google was orchestrating a plan to “push back” against him.
The intense recruitment may not have had its intended effect. “They’re the bad guys at the moment,” said a parliamentary assistant involved in the DMA talks. “Everything that comes from them is a little awkward and difficult to justify why we would include it in the legislation.”
Andreas Schwab, the MEP who leads the DMA debate in parliament and a prominent longtime critic of Google, said the company’s efforts were “a little too late” to have a big impact.
“I get a feeling they’m worried,” says Schwab, who met Google’s Walker a few weeks ago. “And they should be.”
Google said: “We think people in Europe should be able to enjoy the best services that Google can build. It is clear that some of the proposals in the DMA and DSA [Digital Services Act] affects us directly and will have an impact on how we innovate our products in Europe. We care about getting the balance right, and we know our users and customers care too. Like many others, throughout the legislative process, we have openly and constructively liaised with policymakers to convey our views. ”