A few days ago, I was told by the organisers of a “social media” festival that the hashtag was my “new best friend“. As I’ve never hugged a hashtag or cried on the shoulders of one, I felt it was important to question this “wisdom”.
Like millions of others, I’m addicted to Facebook and, to a lesser degree, Twitter. I check these websites so frequently that I often forget they are owned by vast corporations.
Some of these firms’ activities are inherently anti-democratic.
Facebook’s Brussels office is headed by Erika Mann, a former German member of the European Parliament. She has long fought to enable the interests of big business triumph over those of ordinary people.
During her 15 years as an MEP, Mann continuously advocated that the European Union should liberalise its trade with the United States.
At one point, it seemed that her calls were being ignored by political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. All that changed in February this year, when Barack Obama expressed his support for such an agreement during his State of the Union address. Talks aimed at reaching a very broad trade and investment deal were formally launched in July.
Now wearing her Facebook hat, Erika Mann is still extolling the apparent virtues of “free” trade at every available opportunity.
In April, she spoke at a conference in Dublin, where Facebook’s international headquarters are located. Mann argued that it would be “extremely important” for an eventual deal to make the standards faced by internet companies in the EU and US “more coherent”.
While Mann claimed that she did not wish to see standards becoming “identical”, it is highly improbable that she will be pushing for more robust rules. Facebook recently submitted detailed recommendations to MEPs about how to weaken a new data protection law.
Information leaked by the courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden demonstrated that Facebook has been helping the National Security Agency to undertake espionage on a massive scale.
Before those revelations were made, Erika Mann claimed that Facebook was “leading the way” both in protecting privacy and in helping the digital sector to flourish. Her assurances now appear risible.
Facebook isn’t alone in hoping that the trade agreement will lead to “regulatory convergence” on different sides of the Atlantic. The European Commission has drawn up a paper for the talks, which indicates its willingness to copy and paste demands made by the car industry. The paper suggests that whenever either the EU or the US feels the need to have new rules on the amount of pollution vehicles may cause, they will consult each other with a view to finding a common approach.
In practice, this is a recipe for preventing Europe from having tougher emissions standards than the US.
Mann has few, if any, qualms about lobbying her former colleagues. She has spoken at events within the European Parliament’s buildings on a number of dossiers.
Last year, she addressed a conference on data protection organised by one of the assembly’s committees. She also spoke at a reception sponsored by the beer industry, during which she voiced support for “voluntary initiatives” undertaken by those behemoths of booze eager to portray themselves as responsible.
That wasn’t simply a case of Mann meeting some old pals for a knees-up. Facebook had clinched a huge advertising contract with Diageo — owner of Guinness and Smirnoff — a few months earlier.
Her participation in the beer-fuelled reception involved sending a signal to law-makers that they should abandon any plans they may have to ban or restrict the marketing of alcohol. The idea that the drinks industry can be expected to behave responsibly is, of course, daft. The only objective of corporations is to amass as much money as they can.
Following a scandal in 2011 in which a few MEPs were recorded stating they would be happy to receive bribes from journalists posing as lobbyists, the European Parliament drew up a code of conduct. In theory, the code applies to both sitting and former MEPs.
And yet a Parliament spokeswoman told me: “from what I gather of your description of Mrs Mann’s activities, it doesn’t seem that she has breached the code of conduct”.
The code states that former MEPs should not benefit from the Parliament’s “facilities” if they wish to engage in lobbying “directly linked” to EU law-making. According to the spokeswoman, this clause did not relate merely to accessing the Parliament’s buildings but to such perks as use of its car-parks and libraries.
If Mann is undertaking lobbying on the Parliament’s premises, there is strong prima facie evidence that she is not playing by the rules. But it seems that the Parliament’s administration is happy to overlook how former MEPs are usurping democracy by cajoling their old colleagues into tweaking laws to placate certain vested interests.
A leaked internal paper from the European Commission indicated that it plans to make extensive use of Twitter and Facebook to sell the so-called benefits of a trans-Atlantic trade deal.
Fortunately, the Commission’s officials aren’t the only people who know to tweet, share and “like”.
Given that Facebook’s Brussels office wants a trade deal to be concluded, it behoves those of us opposing the deal to flood the pages of Facebook with the unvarnished truth. We should spare no effort in calling out the lobbyists seeking to destroy the last vestiges of our democracy.
David Cronin is the author of the new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War, published by Pluto Press.
A version of this article was first published by EUobserver.