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On High Tech Lobbying

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Lobbyists are like lawyers. Normally in return for coin of the realm they put forward their client's case for or against a particular proposition. Clearly they cannot be relied upon to draw attention to weaknesses in the point of view they are seeking to advance but if all sides of an argument are more or less evenly matched this might not be so important.

Thus lobbyists undoubtedly can help to improve the democratic process and this should lead to better decision-making all round. Certainly I know several Opposition MPs in the UK, and many Government backbenchers, who frankly acknowledge they could not do their job properly if lobbyists were not around to help them marshal the relevant information. In other countries where elected officials are better resourced it might not be the same but here it is what it is and will not change any time soon.

Problems with lobbying only arise if it is done corruptly, covertly or if there is a significant lack of equality in the resources available to the various parties arguing a given case. Which, in a rather long winded way, brings me to the main point of this blog. The inequality can sometimes be stark, verging on overwhelming.

Lobbying in the USA

Because so many decisions taken in the USA affect how we use the internet we most definitely have an interest in what goes on over there in relation to any and all matters affecting policy-making. In an article published last week in the New York Times (NYT) the scale on which high tech companies are involved in lobbying was laid bare. Actually, that is not strictly correct. The article does not make this clear but I checked with the prime source: the exquisitely named Center for Responsive Politics. It runs a web site called OpenSecrets.org.

The figures published by the NYT relate solely to lobbying US Federal Governmental institutions. The numbers shown do not cover lobbying in any individual States in America nor overseas (that's us).

We learn that in 2011 the combined total spent on lobbying by "tech companies" was a record US$127 million. The NYT thinks 2012's total will be larger, setting a new record because it has been busier these past twelve months. Seemingly many other industries' expenditure on lobbying is in decline, but not the tech companies'.

Hey big spenders

The biggest spender was Google at US$13 million by the end of the third quarter of 2012. That was more than double the next highest, Microsoft, at US$5.6 million. Facebook seems to be showing the largest rate of growth doubling up to a still comparatively modest US$ 2.6 million.

I am not entirely sure how the numbers are computed. If all that was involved was adding up the cash handed over to registered lobbying companies that would be easy, but the cost of in house people is also included. What is less clear is how they account for all the industry surrogates, trade associations and other activist bodies which are not formally aligned with any individual enterprise but which do their work at one remove or greater.

This matters because.....

Equivalent figures for the UK and Brussels are not available but the picture is unlikely to be very different over here. This matters because we have civil servants and politicians sitting in the middle listening to all sides, but one particular side is fighting with an army behind it, with access to big budgets for research, for financing trips, entertaining, producing glossy reports and slick conferences. Then there's the rest. How poor we are by comparison.

Every penny spent by a company on lobbying can lead directly to increased profits. They will think of it as an investment. Every penny spent by, for example, a children's organizations is or could be portrayed as being a penny not spent on helping a child or a family. It's an impossible choice for most.

I know with complete certainty that many opportunities to influence public policy in the high tech space in favour of the position of children are lost to children's organizations. They slip through their fingers for no reason other than they do not have the necessary human and other resources to do a better or more comprehensive job. A not unfamiliar cry, especially in these times of austerity.

Did I just use the word "austerity"? I think I did. Clearly it's a relative term. High tech lobbying companies seem to be floating above it all. We are definitely not all in it together.