towards a more transparent ideas economy
Recent reporting from The Logic circulated in the Financial Post outlines Amazon’s vigorous “behind-the-scenes” campaign to squelch momentum around modernising Canada’s Competition Act, threatening to turn ‘off’ Amazon Marketplace if Canada moves forward with any prospective reforms that were previewed by the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development in February of this year. [While some initial changes to the Competition Act were tucked into the budget bill earlier this year, a more comprehensive review is set to launch shortly.]
Back to Amazon: It is striking to consider how a large tech firm may be seeking to control - or even preemptively shut down - the narrative around the nascent prospect of competition reform in Canada through the use of existing outlets that trade on the promise of intellectual independence - think tanks are not institutions designed to launder lobbyist talking points. That said, when the news story broke, the general sentiment on social media seemed to be some version of “it was always thus,” - AKA, the mercenary-ness of some places is a well-known norm. I don’t buy that. Though as scholar Donald Abelson has pointed out, think tanks have long been reimagined as political advocacy vehicles. I think that reality is something that is widely appreciated. Perhaps our version of different ‘viewpoints’ has maybe shifted from being ideological to corporate. Their role in obscuring the source of the perspective for a select few members (or a VIP member) is something worth paying attention to, not tacitly accepting. Like, what’s the point now - is it just to be a front front industry talking points?
For me, the story that Martin Patriquin published is less about the specific outlets or people named, and more about the potential vulnerability of these important places to an influx of cash from a new donor. Does it bug me that former Commissioners of Competition can chime in on the reform convo without ever disclosing any potential conflicts? Yes. But it also doesn’t seem like anyone’s ever asked them - which lets them leverage the prestige of having overseen the Bureau while - maybe - casually parroting talking points for Amazon or others. Conflicted relationships threaten the presumed intellectual independence of such figures.
At this point, it is ridiculous to not ask whether someone has been paid for their opinion, or had support from a lobbyist or consultancy in drafting a document - like an opinion editorial or prepared remarks for a Parliamentary committee - for public consumption. The weak rationale that “everyone does this,” or that it has “been this way forever” is unacceptable. Sponsored content is just that, whether you are a mommy blogger or the King of Spain. Such an activity is not only lazy, but contemptuous of the Canadian public. In the case of former competition Commissioners, this is the same public that is paying their pension while they may be representing the interests of the largest technology firms during debates.
That said, all perspectives deserve to and must be heard throughout public policy processes. But stakeholders aren’t always honest when they express their positions. A more recent and popular company tactic is the smoke-screening of their perspectives through otherwise reputable think tanks and academics, or even the creation of shell organisations designed to resemble authentic, grassroots interventions (like Meta’s “American Edge” OR Apple guiding the App Association’s direction through funding OR Amazon and Google’s “Connected Commerce Council.” )
Now, new umbrellas may be necessary, as the Internet Association was once a top tech lobby in the US, but it was dissolved at the end of 2021 after member organisations were no longer able to align as a “unified voice of the internet economy.” But these new entrants aren’t transparent and are designed to appear ‘independent.’
Aside: I have been spending some time on the Wayback Machine, reviewing submissions made to the Compete to Win Report as a way to casually study the logic and potential threads of homogenous argumentation that took place in 2008 and 2009. There are ~153 submissions, and most of them come from banks, telecoms, insurers, unions, universities, lawyers, and business groups. Civil society is super under-represented.
That time period was a totally different moment for technology and the digital economy. The major tech company that contributed to that consultation was eBay and Shopify was just two years old. The App Store had just launched, Airbnb was just starting up, and Uber was around the corner. My cell phone flipped up, snapped shut, and the keyboard was T9 word. Change has been exponential since then.
What can we do to ensure independent and rigorous research and advocacy that takes place off-campus? What checks and balances would impose the same standard(s) that we wield over Instagram influencers?
To begin, the think tank community can learn from the research offices of universities, which stipulate that funded research must disclose the sponsor and enter into an agreement whereby the sponsor cannot influence the outcome of the research. However, academics often accept private consulting gigs with firms that may not adhere to the same standard. Moving forward, all consulting should be reported to the university, and published in an annual report.
Outlets like The Conversation require that researchers disclose any potential conflicts when publishing, and these are noted as part of their bio. Probably more media outlets need to emulate this standard as a way to minimise intellectual sponcon.
We should hold experts to the same standard and code that we expect online influencers and creators to uphold - sponsored research should be clearly acknowledged, not creatively shaped by membership fees or tiers. It’s probably unreasonable to presume that every member or sponsor of a think tank is properly represented by one publication, so why not get a little more specific?
Secondly, the Canadian Revenue Agency should be obligated to disclose the funding amounts from funders that support these “independent” non-profit entities. It should not be a mystery how much certain firms are investing in a non-profit think tank, and this information should be accessible to the public.
Third, federal lobbying disclosures in the US are filed quarterly and this applies to any entity that lobbies. That’s how you see headlines about how much money certain firms are dedicating to lobbying - comparable information is not gathered in Canada. The Washington Post found that the largest technology companies spent almost $70M lobbying Washington in 2021 as Congress sought to rein in their power. Research shows that ~612 companies, groups and business associations spend over 97E annually lobbying EU institutions on digital economy policies - making tech the biggest lobby sector in the EU by spending.
What else? Preliminary recommendations to improving the Lobbying Act in Canada were made in May of this year. One of the 11 recommendations suggested that paid members of boards of directors should be deemed to be employees of corporations and organisations. This change will also be broadly useful, even if it does not affect the largest technology companies.
Fifth, in the US, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” or “STOCK” Act (2012) prohibits members and employees of Congress from using “any nonpublic information derived from the individual’s position…or gained from performance of the individual’s duties, for personal benefit.” Mirroring this legislation in Canada could bring more transparency related to public officials and their investments (think: people that are pushing cryptocurrency).
Sixth, Canada should strengthen whistleblower protection if something doesn’t pass the sniff test. Canada’s current legal framework for whistleblowing is outdated and out of step with internationally recognized best practices. The most serious deficiencies are 1) lack of protection for public sector whistleblowers, either at a federal or provincial level, and 2) an almost complete lack of coverage of the private sector. This could help better protect people that notice shady acts of policy influence and speak up and out from facing retribution.
An IPSOS poll from earlier this year illuminated that: most (88%) Canadians Say We Need More Competition as it’s Too Easy for Big Business to Take Advantage of Consumers. Maybe it’s too easy for big business to take advantage of policy processes, too.
Perhaps declines in stable public funding have made our think tanks more vulnerable to siege from corporations that are willing to “pay to play.” We need sustainable investment models to protect these institutions from opaque pollution from motivated (and often transient) members infusing new and much-needed revenue to research organisations.
We could also be more specific about the outcomes that a regulatory process should optimise for and the context within which they are decided as a mechanism to encourage constructive policymaking.
Do we consult on proposed policy directions to engage deeply with the public, or placate private actors? Is public policy a competition of ideas, or laborious exercise in corporate compromise?
Recall: apparently, an Amazon executive threatened to ‘turn off’ Amazon Marketplace if Canada continues with efforts to modernise a piece of legislation called the Competition Act. We would be wise to turn off the tap that lets the firm briefly hijack “independent” think tanks by creating a more transparent knowledge economy. There will be significant resistance to such interventions, but that won’t mean it’s not the right decision.
Perhaps it was naive of those who created think tanks to influence public policy to never believe that the think tanks themselves would be open to influences.
I think your six recommendations make a lot of sense. #4, about making paid directors employees... I get the point but I guess it's the final nail in the coffin about directors providing some layer of independent oversight. How impartial can you be if you are an employee?