Who will regulate the regulators? Big Tech and their influence on government policy

A new research group works to expose the revolving doors between staff in private and public sectors that can leave consumers vulnerable to ‘regulatory capture’

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Amazon, Google and Facebook are just some of the corporate giants that have taken over the tech space. While it seems like technology has come to regulate people’s everyday lives, the question now being asked is who gets to regulate the tech industry?


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The assumption is that regulators are unbiased and qualified individuals that care deeply about consumer safety, but that may not always be the case. According to findings from a new pilot research project, there are often revolving doors between staff in private and public sectors that can leave consumers vulnerable to what is known as “regulatory capture.”

“When public policy is enacted in the interest of private industry, rather than in the public interest, that’s regulatory capture,” states the website for the Regulatory Capture Lab, which is aimed at revealing how decision-making works in Canada.

Even as the federal government starts to establish guidelines surrounding tech, conflicts of interest and revolving private to public career cycles have led experts like Jim Balsillie, the founder of the Center for Digital Rights and a collaborator on the Regulatory Capture Lab, to question whether Canadians are at top of mind in decision-making.


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“We have had really no regulation or highly inadequate regulation in the past from this government,” Balsillie said. “It’s very, very important not only to critically analyze what these proposed regulations say, but also have currency on who’s having influence on the drafting of these (policies).”

The Regulatory Capture Lab was started by the not-for-profit groups FRIENDS and the Centre for Digital Rights, with research from McMaster University’s master of public policy in digital society program.

The collaboration was created to draw attention to the influence Big Tech has on government.


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“This research highlights to what extent politicos are shuffling back and forth between Ottawa and Big Tech companies, influencing legislation on one hand, and profiting from these changes with the other. Facebook’s Kevin Chan has a direct line to the Heritage Minister’s staff. The Finance Minister’s chief of staff came straight from Google,” said general manager of FRIENDS, Liisa Ladouceur, in a statement. “We want Canadians to take a look and work with us to ask Ottawa who is really in the driving seat.”

Big Tech is a relatively new dominating industry. The internet, social platforms, and tech conglomerates have only been around for the last couple of decades, and policy has yet to match the quick pace of growth in the tech space.


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While regulatory capture in tech is catching the attention of decision makers in the United States, Canada seems to lag behind.

Vass Bednar, the executive director of the master of public policy program at McMaster, says she thinks this is because Canada generally takes a “wait and see” approach.

“These issues are just so difficult, and challenge the way we’ve organized government overall. Like, very few of them fit nicely into one ministry. But it just takes time to get it right,” Bednar said.

She is hopeful that we are headed in the right direction when it comes to tech policy.

“This federal Liberal government is certainly bringing forward more of a tech accountability agenda, you know, moving to modernize privacy, in line with the OECD on digital taxation, and thinking about online harms. Those are all really good, really strong, signals about the government’s priorities to bring about meaningful policy change in a digital era,” said Bednar.


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Center for Digital Rights founder Jim Balsillie: “If you don’t regulate this, you foundationally compromise security, society and the economy.”
Center for Digital Rights founder Jim Balsillie: “If you don’t regulate this, you foundationally compromise security, society and the economy.” Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/File

Big Tech has more than tripled its lobbying efforts in Canada since Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, The Logic reported.

Balsillie says that’s why there’s a need for the Regulatory Capture Lab.

“We’ve needed this for a long time. The need for it is growing bigger because of the changing nature of the economy,” he said.

To accomplish this, the group’s website aims to publish credible information and bring transparency to a wide variety of topics surrounding regulatory capture, including capture in academia and government, different types of revolving door careers, and indexes of private-to-public-sector employees.

Similar projects have been started in the United States and countries within the European Union, such as the Tech Transparency Project, Open Secrets, and the Revolving Door group.

As tech is quickly progressing, Balsillie says it’s important to hold those who control public policy accountable to Canadians.

“If you don’t regulate this, you foundationally compromise security, society and the economy,” Balsillie said. “What is a nation if you don’t have those realms properly protected and advanced?”



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