Influence Abroad: The state of global lobbying disclosure

(Photo credit: Commons)

It’s increasingly clear that many of the issues that affect citizens of any country aren’t solely under the control of their national governments. From climate change and fossil fuels to the internet, there are countless areas that require transnational regulation and problems that need international solutions. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, a multinational corporation that wants to advocate for a favorable regulatory environment will likely need to do so in more than one country. Coca-Cola might be headquartered in Atlanta, but they sell soda all over the world, including in Mexico and Israel, where potential soda taxes could hurt their businesses. Why wouldn’t they lobby there, too? For transparency advocates, that leaves the question: How do we find out who’s lobbying where?

Why global lobbying disclosure matters

We’ve been very critical of lobbying disclosure in the U.S., and for good reason: There’s a real problem of unregistered lobbying, and for reasons ranging from bureaucratic apathy to lack of resources, the Department of Justice does nothing about it. There are thousands of people in D.C. who are paid to influence public policy, but don’t register as lobbyists.

While the U.S. could work to continue to improve this, compared to many other countries in the world, lobbying disclosure in the U.S. is excellent. The Lobbying Disclosure Act requires lobbyists to file disclosures if they spend at least 20 percent of their time lobbying on behalf of a client, or if they make at least two contacts with covered government officials and their staff. The disclosures list what issues they’ve lobbied on, including sometimes the names of laws, how much they were paid for it, and the names of the government officials they’ve contacted on behalf of their client. The disclosures are available in a searchable, sortable, exportable database on the Senate’s website.

Compared to the rest of the world, that’s pretty good. Only 22 countries regulate lobbying at all: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Georgia, Germany, Hungary (though its law was repealed), Ireland, Israel, Lithuania, Macedonia, Mexico, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Peru, Poland, Slovenia, Taiwan, United Kingdom and the United States. The European Union also regulates lobbying.

But not all these countries provide an online registry of lobbyists, and some provide very limited information.

And that’s a big problem for anyone who wants to know what influence is being exerted abroad by American corporations. Let’s say an American is interested in Uber’s expansion abroad, and they want to know which governments Uber is lobbying to get that done — which governments they’re trying to convince to allow ridesharing, or license their drivers, or, eventually, maybe allow self-driving cars. How would they go about that? How much success would they have? What are they spending to do it? As James Thurber, an expert on international and U.S. lobbying and adviser to the American Bar Association’s task force on lobbying reform, told me:

If you’re an American citizen, and Boeing Aircraft is trying to influence the Saudi government, that’s important to know because it influences our defense policy eventually. … Just in the spirit of our democracy being transparent and open with respect to the influences on public policy, it’s important to see what they’re doing overseas too, because it can affect our own policy here.

We took a look at lobbying registers around the world to see how difficult it would be to track this sort of influence. The answer: It’s really difficult.

What data is included in a good lobbying register?

When we look at lobbying disclosure, it’s important to think about what information citizens need to track influence. Daniel Freund, head of advocacy at Transparency International’s EU Integrity office, told me that the most important things to look for in lobbying registers are “who are the lobbyists, what are they doing and what kind of resources do they have at their disposal to do it.” Thurber agreed with this, adding that “grassroots, top-roots, coalition building” activities should also be disclosed, as he advocates for in the United States. Transparency International collaborated with the Sunlight Foundation and other groups to produce its own lobbying disclosure standards in 2015, which cover a number of factors: whether the register is mandatory, political contributions and accessibility/machine readability of data, among many others.

For our purposes (and with our lack of foreign language skills), we’ve picked what we think are just the most basic criteria that you might need for tracing the influence of U.S. companies abroad.

  • Names/contact info. The most basic thing a lobbying register can contain is who the lobbyists are: their names, and how to contact them. All of the lobbying registers we surveyed include this.
  • Clients. A list of registered lobbyists is all well and good, but it’s not that useful if their clients aren’t public. Some firms might list their clients on their sites, but there’s no way to know whether that list is complete — and they’re most likely to hide the ones they’re not proud of. Several countries we looked at only listed the names and contact information of lobbyists, or what issue areas they worked on, but not the clients they work for. If you’re trying to figure out the influence a corporation, or any other organization, has on the government, the lobbying register has to include both the identity of the lobbyists and whom they’re representing.
  • Contacts with officials. This is the primary method of lobbying: talking to government officials with the power to change (or preserve) public policy. That means both elected and appointed officials, and their senior staff. A good lobbying registry should include details of which government officials were contacted on which issues. This is one area where other countries’ registers can actually surpass the U.S.: Chile’s registry includes details of who met and when, and summaries of what was discussed.
  • Spending. This is one of the most valuable metrics for determining how hard a company is lobbying on an issue or bill. Often, though not always, the more an organization is spending on lobbying, the more time those lobbyists are spending working on that issue — meaning more contact with officials, more research and sometimes more spending on ad campaigns or other public relations material. Most lobbying registries don’t include this information: Only the U.S. requires exact figures, and the EU, France and Austria require registrants to give approximate information.

What does lobbying disclosure look like around the globe?

So, to guide you through the world of influence abroad, we created this spreadsheet. It tells you which data you can find on lobbying in all the countries that currently have online registers of lobbying. (Some cities and other localities in these countries have their own registers; we only focused on national ones.)

To view this spreadsheet in a different tab, click here. (Note: If we’re missing a national lobbying registry that you know about, please let us know in the comments below!)
As you can see, the standard of these registers varies widely. Some simply provide lists of registered lobbyists, without disclosing who they work for. Several countries that do provide data online only provide PDF lists that can’t be searched or sorted; others provide very incomplete information. Peru, for example, provides information on who visited which government officials on each date, but doesn’t allow users to search by name — which is key if you’re interested in a particular company’s lobbying efforts. (Two Peruvian transparency activists set up a website,, that scrapes this data to allow searches by name). Montenegro’s lobbying law went into effect in January 2016, but no lobbyists have registered so far, according to a spokesperson for their anti-corruption agency. Germany provides a list of lobbying and advocacy groups but not a list of actual individual lobbyists, nor their clients, in PDF form. We didn’t include it in the list because it didn’t meet the basic requirement of naming individual lobbyists; Freund told me calling Germany’s list a lobbying register would be “a bit of a joke.”

One thing that we couldn’t assess here (without speaking any other languages), but still massively affects the utility of these registers, is a country’s legal definition of a lobbyist. As we noted, that’s a big problem in the U.S., where the 20 percent threshold makes it easy for lobbyists to avoid registering. But it’s a problem in other countries, too. Freund told me that they estimate only 3 percent of lobbyists in the United Kingdom are registered because the definition of a lobbyist is so narrow. Steven Goodrich at Transparency International UK told me the scope of the U.K.’s register is “so small as to be laughable.” This means even if a register is good in other ways — data format, details of meetings, spending details — it can still miss a huge amount of lobbying activity, and therefore not provide adequate transparency.  

What we have with this list is, at least, the beginnings of a guide to lobbying registers in other countries. It’s very surprising how little comparative information exists about lobbying regulations around the world — though that might be partly because so few countries regulate lobbying at all, and would have no data to disclose.

This makes it very difficult for interested citizens in an increasingly globalized world to see where influence is being peddled on issues that affect their lives. An American citizen has a right to know whether companies that enjoy the protection and benefits of being housed in the United States are using their wealth to influence policy in other countries, especially if those policies will then affect them in turn. There are countless issues that affect citizens of more than one country, from arms sales to Brexit to finance and banking. Thurber says lobbying disclosure worldwide isn’t “getting better fast enough,” but also reminds us that however bad lobbying disclosure might be, “We can’t give up.”

Without solid, consistent lobbying disclosure across the world, it’s very difficult to hold the powerful and influential to account — and that’s a problem for citizens of every nation.

Further reading

Transparency International’s “Lobbying In Europe” project scored lobbying disclosure in EU countries, assessing transparency, integrity and equality of access to the government.

International Standards for Lobbying Regulation, produced by Transparency International, Access Info Europe, Sunlight Foundation and Open Knowledge International.

Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying (2013), produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.