The recent leak of more than 120,000 confidential files from Uber—which exposed the tech giant’s secret lobbying and powerful government alliances—has drawn significant public attention to the power, and problem, of corporate influence over governments and public officials around the globe.
The documents, known as the Uber files, show how the ride-hailing company leveraged attacks on its drivers to secure meetings with politicians and push regulatory changes. The company spent millions of dollars pressuring governments to change their laws toward a gig-economy model. In 2016, Uber planned to spend $90 million on lobbying and spent nearly $30 million to pass Proposition 22 in California to keep workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Independent contractors are not covered by state labor laws, leaving Uber drivers unable to access worker protections such as workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance. Uber also lobbied many high-level officials in Europe, including then-economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who fought hard for Uber’s interests and brokered deals on behalf of the company within the French cabinet.
The Uber files demonstrate how corporate capture threatens democracy and human rights, as companies exert strong influence within legislative and regulatory bodies, courts, and elections to manipulate the government into putting corporate profits ahead of the public interest. Corporations typically gain this influence using political spending, lobbying, and “the revolving door,” which is the movement of individuals back and forth between industry and government. While the revelations in the Uber files are shocking, the company’s ability to leverage its significant financial resources and political connections to shape policy in its favor is not uncommon, mirroring corporate and government abuse in other sectors such as big agribusiness, the oil and gas industry, and the private prison system.
Big agribusiness, which is dominated by multinational corporations, consists of crop producers, dairy farmers, tobacco companies, agrichemical producers, meat processors, and many other corporate stakeholders. The industry has spent over $1.16 billion influencing federal elections in the past thirty years and contributed more than $10 million to House and Senate Agriculture Committees members in 2018 alone. Earlier this year, a Congressional Investigation confirmed that meat processing companies and officials at the Department of Agriculture (USDA) worked together to protect profits, instead of the lives of workers at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to industry lobbying, USDA officials helped ensure that meatpacking workers were designated as “critical infrastructure” employees by the White House (which exempted workers from social distancing and stay-at-home orders); pushed for Department of Labor policies to deprive employees of benefits if they missed work; and blocked life-saving health and safety measures at the state and local level. Furthermore, this corporate influence impacts the food we eat: for example, after industry lobbying, the Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its proposal to ban the agricultural use of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that is toxic to humans and sprayed on at least 50 crops like apples and almonds, causing harm to the environment and to farmworkers, children, and others who are exposed to the chemical at or near the application site or via the food they eat.
The oil and gas industry has contributed more than $2.4 billion in lobbying the federal government in the last twenty-five years. The industry has successfully lobbied for the removal of environmental review requirements, paving the way for quick approval of pipelines without adequate opportunities for communities to raise their concerns. Additionally, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is responsible for approving oil and gas pipelines, is infamous for its revolving door and for its industry-friendly approach to pipeline regulation that prioritizes profits over public safety and welfare.
Thousands of corporations profit from mass incarceration, particularly for-profit prison companies operating prisons and immigration detention centers. In the past thirty years, the private prison industry has spent more than $11.5 million on influencing federal elections. There is strong evidence that the industry has used its influence to push laws that expand the industry’s role in the criminal justice and immigration systems. While for-profit prisons are opaque, it is clear that legal changes championed by the industry have allowed companies to profit from cheap prison labor.
The US government has flouted its treaties with Native Peoples, failing to respect indigenous communities’ rights, and the corporate influence of the oil and gas industry has had devastating effects on Native Nations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which has a history of prioritizing resources over land rights, has been known to shut native landowners out of conversations and does not provide them with sufficient information to evaluate leases or rights of way for corporate activities. Additionally, BIA-supervised leasing allows corporations to hire their own appraisers to determine the fair market value of land, resulting in prices that are ten to twenty times lower than non-Native land.
As these examples illustrate, corporate capture is a cross-cutting and wide-spread issue that undermines our democracy and causes significant harm. And as the Uber files make clear, this is a problem at a global scale. To highlight this problem, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) partnered with 4th Wall App to develop and launch the Capitol, Inc. campaign. This campaign uses augmented reality art installations—which are virtually placed at different iconic locations along the National Mall and visible via the free ICAR AR app—to call the public’s attention to the invisible influence of corporations in the federal government and to push for change.
Corporate capture is most powerful when it is invisible, making it necessary to expose these practices, demand accountability, and put in place commonsense protections that put people and the planet over outsized corporate profits.
Written by Tessa Zavislan, Legal & Policy Intern