GAFAM Nation. Big Tech’s web of influence in France

Rapidly increasing lobbying expenses, revolving doors, secret contacts at the Elysée Palace, financial partnerships with media, think tanks and research institutions... A dive into the formidable lobbying and influence machine of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook in France.

Published on 30 January 2023

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GAFAM Nation. Big Tech’s web of influence in France (report in French)

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What influence do US tech giants actually have on French politics and society? How does it operate in practice? With what objectives? And how does it fit with their business model and the societal vision they claim to embody?

This report, the first of its kind, is an overview of the web of influence woven by Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and other tech companies in France. This web of influence encompasses lobbying activities in the narrow sense of the term (or at least what is known about them thanks to existing transparency mechanisms) as well as the close relations cultivated by these corporations with French political leaders and top civil servants, and the “soft power” deployed through financial deals with media outlets, research institutions and other civil society organisations.

In July 2022, the “Uber Files” scandal shed light on the platform’s cynical lobbying tactics to enter the European market, and on the secret support it was able to secure at the very top of the French government and of the European Commission. In reality, these very same tactics are used by Amazon, Google and others use in France and elsewhere in Europe, even though they generally prefer to display a more benign and positive attitude that contrasts with Uber’s aggressiveness.

In a sense, the so-called “GAFAM” are just corporations like any others. They use the same lobbying and influence strategies as older global giants in other economic sectors. But they also differ in several ways. First, by the sheer scale of their financial clout and of the resources at their disposal. Secondly, by their ability to use levers of influence that other corporations do not control so entirely, such as their visible and invisible sway over the media, or their user base of a totally unprecedented scale. Thirdly, by the novelty of their economic model, that requires a technical expertise that few except these corporations possess, as well as new regulation approaches.

This exploration of US tech giants’ web of influence also provides yet another demonstration, after the “Uber Files”, of the shortcomings of current lobbying transparency rules in France. Reinforcing and widening reporting obligations, introducing a mandatory disclosure of meetings between decision-makers and interest representatives, making sure corporate funding of media and research institutions is transparent... These are a few simple reforms, long called for by civil society organisations, that would make it possible, if not to reduce the hold of corporate giants, at least to better understand their influence and thus contribute to a more balanced and healthier democratic debate.

Main findings

  • The French subsidiaries of Google (Alphabet), Amazon, Facebook (Meta), Apple and Miscrosoft have declared a total of €4,075,000 in lobbying expenses in France in 2021, compared to €1,350,000 in 2017, a threefold increase.
  • US Big Tech employ numerous lobbying firms (8 in Paris and 10 in Brussels just for Google), and enjoy the support of several trade associations of the digital sector, with cumulated lobbying expenses of €1.44 million in 2021.
  • US tech giants have recruited many former senior civil servants or former heads of regulatory authorities in France to lobby their former colleagues.
  • Despite the “Uber Files” scandal and other media investigations, there is still no full transparency about meetings and contacts between Big Tech and public decision-makers.
  • US tech giants have struck financial partnerships with think tanks, major media outlets and research institutions in France, which give them considerable influence over public opinion and policy debates.
  • Due to a lack of resources and expertise, French government departments and public services have also entered numerous deals with US Big Tech, which are thus asserting themselves as indispensable partners of government.

US tech giants have increasingly come under fire in recent years: for their tax avoidance which harms taxpayers and governments, for their disregard for privacy and their exploitation of personal data, for their role in the dissemination of hate speech, for their anti-competitive practices and their increasing market power which threatens virtually every other economic player, for their ecological footprint, for the paradigm of a fully privatised society that they tend to promote, for their stealthy undermining of our economic and political “sovereignty”, and so on.

In spite of all the criticism and all the controversies, their influence has remained largely intact. They have continued to weave their web of influence and to grow ever deeper roots in French economy and society. They have posed as “partners” of governments to solve the problems they themselves had caused. Big Tech knows how to create and maintain the impression that they are indispensable and that their rise is inevitable.

There are resistance and alternatives to the dominance of the GAFAM, including from within the public sector, but these efforts are often undermined by the political orientations set at the very top of the French government. Emmanuel Macron and his ministers continue to base large parts of their economic policies on the narratives and criteria developed by the Silicon Valley. From the France becoming a “start-up nation”, as Emmanuel Macron called for in 2017, to the “100 French unicorns” that he set as a national objective in 2022, French business are being told to compete on a field built and controlled by Big Tech, according to rules designed by Big Tech.

US tech giants are promoting a narrative of inescapable “digital transition” that justifies privatisation policies, cuts in public services, and the “disruption” of society and social institutions. At the same time, and particularly in France, governments seem increasingly fascinated by the potential for control and surveillance offered by Big Tech’s tools and infrastructure, at the risk of undermining civil liberties. For some months now, the French government has made “digital sovereignty” a central motto of its action – but its vision of “digital sovereignty” seems almost entirely based on Big Tech’s world view and on its interests – which no doubt explains why this “sovereignty” policy, in practical terms, for instance for cloud services, actually results into new partnerships with Amazon, Microsoft or Google.

Today the US tech giants giants seem to have lost some of their sheen. Their share price has fallen sharply on the stock market in a context of rising interest rates, and some of their promised breakthrough innovations, such as Facebook’s metaverse, have failed to deliver. Many of them have had to make massive layoffs. This is a new phase in their history, in which they will undoubtedly become even more “normalised” (in the sense of behaving like other corporations). Nevertheless, the major economic and democratic issues that we have to confront in regards to Big Tech have not changed. It is all the more necessary to understand their power, and how it could be challenged.

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