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Foreign tech giants have more than tripled their lobbying since Justin Trudeau became prime minister

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in San Francisco on a trip to Silicon Valley in February 2018.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in San Francisco on a trip to Silicon Valley in February 2018. Adam Scotti/PMO
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Foreign tech giants have more than tripled their lobbying in Ottawa since Justin Trudeau won the October 2015 federal election, according to an analysis of eight years of lobbying records conducted by The Logic. Amazon and Alphabet together made up more than half that increase, lobbying the combined equivalent of every other day over the past four years.

The increase comes as other major sectors of the Canadian economy are dialing back their lobbying. For example, Canada’s Big Five banks and Big Three telecommunications firms have lobbied slightly less so far under the Liberals than they did under the Conservatives.

The tech firms are looking to effect policy change on a wide range of issues including economic development, international trade, elections, telecommunications and taxation.

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Data from the federal lobbyist registry shows that 25 large, publicly traded foreign tech firms lobbied a combined 1,358 times under the Liberals, compared to 428 times under the Conservatives.

While the amount of lobbying overall has picked up over the last four years, Big Tech’s activity has increased significantly more. In total, organizations and their consultants had filed 79,186 communication reports during this government as of late May, while they registered 52,927 under the Conservatives.

Amazon has increased its lobbying in recent years more than any other tech giant, up from 13 times between 2011 and 2015 to 438 since Trudeau won the election. The firm’s registrations state that it wants to work with government to facilitate online selling and delivering to consumers.

The company’s fulfillment subsidiary has communicated with 16 Liberal MPs from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since 2015.

Over that time, it has built a new warehouse in Brampton and hired hundreds of workers at three others in the GTA. Last year, it also announced plans for distribution centres in Ottawa; Edmonton; and Delta, B.C. that it says will employ a combined 1,900 people.

The company is also on a corporate recruitment spree. In March, The Logic reported it was hiring for 800 jobs in 15 cities. It’s looking to work with the government on “ensuring the availability of a high-skilled tech workforce,” per its registrations.

Talking Point

The Logic’s analysis of eight years of data shows foreign tech giants have lobbied a combined 1,358 times under the Liberals, compared to 428 times under the Conservatives. The increase comes as other major sectors of the Canadian economy like banking and telecom are dialing back their lobbying.

Amazon did not respond to questions about the increase in its lobbying activity, or what specific changes to laws and policies it was seeking in its communications with officials.

Alphabet’s subsidiaries combined were the second-most active in Ottawa of the 25 firms analyzed, driven largely by Sidewalk Labs, its smart-city firm, arriving in Canada.

Trudeau attended the announcement of Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project with Waterfront Toronto on Oct. 17, 2017; the company registered to lobby the federal government 10 days later and has since done so 64 times.

Keerthana Rang, associate director of communications, said the “vast majority” of the lobbying was the company conducting technical briefings and meeting with officials “in order to ensure our proposals are not inconsistent with their work.”

Google Canada, meanwhile, has lobbied 128 times under the Liberals, up from 92 times under the Conservatives. Among other subjects, the company has registered to talk to the government about NAFTA’s intellectual-property and digital-trade provisions, as well as artificial-intelligence (AI) development and the growth of the Toronto-Waterloo tech ecosystem.

The company lobbied 13 times on international trade in 2017, including three meetings with advisers on Canada-U.S. relations in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), as well as the then-parliamentary secretaries for foreign affairs and innovation. NAFTA negotiations began that August.

In other countries, Google has called for clauses in international trade agreements that stipulate tech firms are largely not responsible for content created on their platforms, and ensuring the ability to transfer data across borders. Both provisions were included in the new U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement.

Google did not answer questions from The Logic about what specific policy measures or regulatory changes it has asked for in its meetings with government officials. “Technology is a big part of the current policy discussions and it will be for a long time,” said Aaron Brindle, head of public affairs at Google Canada. “We think it is important to have a strong voice in the debate.”

The PMO directed questions about Big Tech lobbying to Bains’s office. Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED) was the department most lobbied by the 25 firms; its predecessor, Industry Canada, was also the most contacted under the Conservative government.

In May, Bains announced a new digital charter, whose principles include fair competition between tech companies and proposed changes to privacy laws that would give consumers the right to transfer or share their data.

When asked why there had been an increase in Big Tech lobbying and what Bains discussed in his meetings with the tech giants, Dani Keenan, the minister’s press secretary said, “Our government created [ISED] to prepare Canadians for the shift to a data-driven economy. It’s no surprise that Minister Bains and his team have regularly engaged with Canadians, businesses, and stakeholders, to help Canadian businesses grow, innovate and export.”

She cited Salesforce’s February 2018 announcement that it will spend $2.5 billion on its Canadian operations by 2023; Amazon’s under-construction $120-million warehouse in Edmonton, which is scheduled to open in 2020; and Cisco Canada’s $15-million expansion plan in Western Canada, among other examples of tech investments.

Salesforce did not respond to questions from The Logic about its government relations activity, while Cisco Canada declined to comment. The firms have lobbied seven and 111 times, respectively, under the Liberals. Trudeau met both Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos during a February 2018 trip to San Francisco.

In February 2018, Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould said social media platforms needed to do more to combat the spread of disinformation and prevent election interference, and that the government would step in with regulation if they did not act—a position she’s repeated frequently this year. In April, she said the government has had several conversations with the companies, but hadn’t “seen a willingness or keenness to respond actively here in Canada.”

Tech firms’ lobbying on election issues has significantly increased since Gould started talking about regulation—all their 38 communications on the subject have come since those February 2018 remarks.

Google has lobbied 13 times on election issues since October 2018, when the government’s election legislation was amended to require high-traffic platforms to set up registries of political ads run before and during campaigns last year. After the changes the company wanted were rejected by the Senate, it announced it would not accept political ads during the election.

Unlike Google, Facebook and Twitter have both set up ad registries. Facebook met with the minister in January, and communicated with her staff or senior civil servants 22 times over the last nine months. Twitter has communicated with Democratic Institutions officials thrice, while Microsoft has met with Gould and her staff, as well as civil servants in Global Affairs and Public Safety.

Despite the minister’s repeated threats to regulate, the government has yet to introduce new rules, while countries like Britain and France have proposed or passed new laws that would see platforms face fines or lawsuits for allowing the spread of disinformation.

Canada has sought voluntary compliance, with a declaration on election integrity in May signed by Facebook, Google and Microsoft, which commits the firms to increasing their efforts to fight disinformation, removing fake accounts, and promoting cybersecurity.

Meg Jaques, Gould’s press secretary, said the government has asked social media companies to be more transparent about where information on their platforms is coming from, and ensure their technology is secure. “Canadians will hold these platforms to account and we will measure progress against the expectations set out in the declaration,” she said. The declaration does not set out metrics to measure progress, or penalties for failing to do so.

Facebook’s lobbying has increased under the Liberals. When asked about the rise, Erin Taylor, communications manager, attributed it to Facebook only joining the lobbyist registry in May 2018. Facebook did so after Maclean’s reported that its head of public policy, Kevin Chan, was not registered. All of Facebook’s previous lobbying had been filed by consultants.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. Microsoft engages with governments “on a wide range of public policy and procurement issues,” said Kamran Niazi, public relations lead for corporate affairs.

Tech firms have also increased their lobbying efforts over the broadcasting industry’s content funding policies.

Artists group have called for an end to a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s policy that exempts streaming services from normal broadcasting rules, including content funding requirements and quotas. Advocacy group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting has called for Netflix to pay its “fair share,” and estimates the carve-out will save Netflix $250 million by 2020.

Telecommunications giants Rogers and Bell also want the government to make foreign streaming services to fund Canadian content.

Netflix wants to keep the CRTC exemption, according to its registration, and has so far been successful in doing so. The company has lobbied the government 53 times under the Liberals, up from 31 under the Conservatives. “Our growing investments and production presence in Canada are the focus of our growing work and meetings with the Canadian government,” said Bao Nguyen, a Netflix spokesperson. “They’re unrelated to party preference.” He cited the company’s 2017 creation of a local production company in Canada and its promise to spend $500 million on production of movies and TV shows in the country.

Nguyen also rejected the idea that the firm was not paying its fair share. “Netflix is already contributing to the Canadian industry, we’re just contributing directly to Canadian creators,” he said.

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Netflix and other tech firms with streaming services like Amazon, Apple and Google could soon have to pay more. Last week, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said he would regulate streaming services and require them to contribute to the creation of Canadian content if the Liberals are re-elected in October. The government said the form of the contribution will be determined by a government-appointed panel currently reviewing the Broadcasting, Telecommunications and Radiocommunications Acts. The group is scheduled to share its recommendations in January 2020.

Other tech firms have focused on tax policy. Uber registered on March 27, 2017, five days after the federal budget—which required ride-sharing drivers to follow the same sales-tax collection rules as taxi operators—was announced. The firm had seven meetings on taxation and finance with officials at Finance Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency that year, and has not been seen in Ottawa since May last year. Uber declined to comment.

Of the 25 firms, 21 increased their lobbying under the Liberals, while four communicated less than they did during the Conservative government.

Methodology

The number of times companies lobbied comes from a dataset published by the federal lobbying commissioner. Numbers for lobbying under the Liberals count communications between Oct. 19, 2015—the date of the last federal election—and May 24, 2019. Those for lobbying under the Conservatives count communications from May 2, 2011 to Oct. 18, 2015.

The analysis included publicly traded companies with market caps above US$100 billion that are listed as technology companies by the stock exchanges on which they trade. Twitter was also included, because it is frequently cited in discussions of Big Tech regulation. The 25 firms are Adobe, ADP, Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Canon, Cisco, Ericsson, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Intuit, Microsoft, Netflix, Oracle, PayPal, Qualcomm, Salesforce, SAP, ServiceNow, Siemens, Twitter, Uber and VMWare.