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Tech companies flex influence abroad at UN Internet conference

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Does management of the Internet need an upgrade? That's the question before representatives of governments, corporations and civil society groups at a two-week conference that opened today in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai.

Member states at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) will be considering whether to maintain the current system -- or, some might say, lack of one -- of Internet management, one that is effectively dominated by the United States, home to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Another alternative: Updating the United Nations International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) treaty, last negotiated in 1988. That would give a stronger say to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an agency founded in 1865, during the era when the World Wide Web consisted of telegraph machines. The ITU is now a UN agency. 

Critics, including many in the U.S., argue that giving the UN more say over Internet management will also give countries that allow censorship, such as China and Russia, more control.

One of the 193 member states of ITU, the United States favors maintaining the Internet status quo. 

"The United States believes that governments, consumers, citizens, and society benefit significantly when all market players have the flexibility to innovate and develop new services in competitive markets, in response to consumer demand." The State Department wrote in one of its proposals: "Telecommunications markets that are structured in this way attract investment, fuel technological advancement, and are efficient in delivering services to consumers."

The U.S. delegation comprises almost a hundred individuals from 49 government agencies, advocacy organizations and businesses, although only representatives of the government can vote on the proposals. The State Department invited anyone who's an expert in Internet governance to apply to become a delegate, but barred registered lobbyists from joining the traveling delegation. However, more than half of the U.S. delegates represent corporations that have spent millions trying to influence Congress during the past year, as well as the European Union. These influential tech companies include:

  • Google leads the pack in the computer and Internet industry in pushing its interests in policy matters. Since 1991, it has poured over $33.5 million into lobbying Capitol Hill, Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer shows. This year, the tech giant has spent $13.1 million in lobbying, significantly more than any spending by an American tech company, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which noted that Google's spending fueled an interesting counter-trend during this election year: The tech sector continued to amp up its influence activities on the Hill even as lobbying in general declined. Google has a stake in several bills such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). It also has registered lobbyists in the European Union (EU) trying to sway policy concerning jobs, data protection, intellectual property and innovation. The Internet company also hasn't been shy about its opposition toward WCIT. A few weeks ago, it launched an online campaign that called for a "free and open Internet." Even more so, the corporation's muscle is reflected in its presence at the conference: While other groups have one to three representatives at the conference, Google has four. 
  • Apple Inc. has spent $1.4 million on lobbying tax, education, copyright, information technology and environmental  issues. In the past year, the consumer electronics company has tried to sway over 30 bills. Like Cisco, the biggest U.S. company has frequently lobbied for the Freedom to Invest Act. At the WCIT, Apple is represented by Telecommunications Management Group, an information and communiciations consulting firm based in Arlington, Va. The EU lobbying registry didn't generate any records for the company, but the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation, however, claims that the year-old site is misleading. In a June report, the watchdog group identified Apple as one of the 120 companies with lobbying operations in Europe but are missing in the database.

Know other interesting delegation members we should highlight? Email us here

(Photo credit: United Nations)