Complaint forces European Privacy Association to confirm Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are corporate backers

Following an official complaint submitted last month, the European Privacy Association (EPA) has now updated its entry in the EU's lobby transparency register. Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) had complained to the register secretariat about the EPA's failure to disclose its industry members (and funders), in violation of the rules of the transparency register.

The register secretariat has now informed CEO that the changes introduced by EPA "meet the requirements" and that they have therefore decided to close the case. But while the EPA's updated register entry now discloses its corporate backers, it remains silent about its links with lobby consultancy firms Competere and DCI Group.

The European Privacy Association (EPA) has been highlighted as an example of an 'astroturf organisation' (or front group) defending the interests of large IT corporations in the ongoing lobby battle around new EU rules for data privacy. The EPA's name may give the impression that it is a supporter of citizen's rights to data privacy, but in reality it is part of an industry offensive to weaken the proposed new rules and avoid restrictions on commercial use of private data.

Within a few days of the complaint's submission, the EPA's managing director Pietro Paganini confirmed to the IDG News Service that “Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are members." The updated register entry also shows that Facebook funds the EPA, together with six other firms and organisations, virtually all with an interest in weakening the proposed new EU data privacy rules. The EPA has chosen the most minimal form of transparency:1 its entry in the Transparency Register states that "EPA engages with a number of Supporters, a complete list of which can be found on the Association's website:". This link leads to a webpage stating that "Supporters of EPA include: Connet, DMA Italia, Facebook, FIU.Net, Google, Microsoft, SafeGov, SAS, SEAT Pagine Gialle and Yahoo.”2 Most of the EPA's backers pay a membership fee of 10,000 euro per year.3 EPA states that it spends only an estimated 50000 € - 100000 € per year influencing EU decision-making.

Following CEO's complaint, the EPA is no longer registered as a think tank, but as an industry lobby group. The EPA's previous registration was at odds with the register's definition of think tanks as organisations “which do not include any profit-making entities or associations of profit-making entities in its membership”.

The EPA, meanwhile, in a press statement claimed to be “both very surprised and rather appreciative of the great attention that our small organization is currently receiving in Brussels.” European Digital Rights (EDRi) commented on the press statement that this 'small organisation' has used the services of lobby consultancies Competere and DCI Group and “managed to run an impressive number of plush lunches and breakfasts in the European Parliament.”

CEO's complaint had also highlighted that the EPA has close relationships with two lobby consultancy firms, DCI Group and Competere Geopolitical Management (“a global communication firm based in Rome and branched in Brussels and Washington DC”, offering lobbying services on issues such as Intellectual Property and Privacy). EPA should have disclosed these relationships in its Transparency Register entry.4 The updated registration still does not mention Competere or DCI Group. CEO has asked the Register Secretariat for clarification about why the EPA has been allowed to provide no clarification of its relationship with these two lobby consultancy firms. Both Competere and DCI Group have failed to join the voluntary register.

The EPA's updated register entry mentions that it has three people involved in lobbying, but that "none of the three are employees or receive any compensation for the work that they do for the Association." This raises several questions, not to mention an eyebrow or two. It would seem that a lobby group funded by multi-billion euro internet giants relies on the free labour of a couple of people who just enjoy a bit of lobbying in their spare time. But this notion is somewhat at odds with the fact that EPA's chair, Karin Riis-Jorgensen, is a former MEP who now works for high-profile Brussels lobby consultancy firm Kreab Gavin Anderson, and the group's Managing Director Pietro Paganini is a partner at lobby consultancy Competere Geopolitical Management. If, for example, the work done by the three lobbyists the EPA discloses in its entry is in fact done under the auspices of other contracts or companies – i.e. it is paid for indirectlyas part of other work, or by others with an interest in influencing the EU's data privacy rules, then this too should be disclosed in the lobby transparency register.

  • 1. This limited form of disclosure is permitted by the 'Transparency Register Compliance Guidelines' (point 6), which state that “all member organizations are to be listed in the declaration” or that a link to a website with a list of members must be included in the registration.
  • 2. In addition to the famous digital industry giants, the less-known EPA-funders are also companies with commercial interests in the use of personal data, including business analytics and software company SAS,the Italian branch of the US Direct Marketing Association DMA Italia, forum for IT providers and leading industry experts and SEAT Pagine Gialle, which publishes telephone directories and offers advertising and market research consulting services.
  • 3. "Supporter contributions vary upon status: "Full" Supporter: 10,000.00 Euro per year "Light" Supporter: 1,000.00 Euro per year Fellow/Scientific Committee Membership (Natural persons): 100.00 Euro per year”
  • 4. This should have been disclosed in the box for “Information on (ii) relationships to other bodies in formal or informal networks”.

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