The UK parliament’s Internet, Communications and Technology All Political Parliamentary Group (ICT APPG) has received £383,700 in financial benefits from Big Tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and BT since the 2019 General Election, it has been revealed. Funding has also been provided by Chinese companies Huawei and TikTok, at a time when the security implications of China’s role in UK technology infrastructure is under scrutiny
According to an investigation by Sky News and Tortoise Media, known as the Westminster Accounts, members of the House of Commons and Lords who participate in the APPGs received up to £20m from lobbying groups and private organisations.
Of this, the ICT APPG – which looks to further the understanding of policy issues affecting the ICT sectors between different involved stakeholders – received £383,700 in financial benefits. This could include funding or benefits-in-kind such as web support, contributions to reports, memberships, overseas trips, discounts, hospitality, event or travel tickets, receptions and loans.
The biggest contributor to the APPG is Google, which provided £39,000 in services, gifts or benefits. It is followed by BT (£33,000) and CityFibre (£27,000). Chinese technology companies Huawei and Tik Tok also contributed to the group, collectively providing financial benefits of £42,000 since 2019.
How does the ICT APPG engage with Big Tech?
An APPG is an informal cross-political party group that has no official status within Parliament. Members of the House of Commons and Lords run the APPGs and many of the groups choose to involve people or organisations from outside of UK Parliament for administration and activities.
As of 12 January 2023, there are 746 active groups on the APPG register. Groups can cover subjects such as ICT or banking, or countries.
The APPG for ICT, also known as the Parliamentary Internet, Communications and Technology Forum (PICTFOR), is described as the “largest and most active” APPG. It works with stakeholders such as Facebook, Imperial College London, BT, techUK, the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) and others to run events and facilitate its mission, according to its website.
On the site, the APPG directly asks organisations to consider “making a contribution towards operation costs” for its events. Without them, it says, it cannot provide the “full programme of events” it delivers. It asks ICT companies with more than £50m in turnover to donate £5,000, with public sector and trade bodies expected to contribute £1,000. Academic organisations can contribute £500.
Do APPGs offer Big Tech access to MPs?
The APPG offers a list of benefits for external ICT stakeholders contributing and involving themselves in the group, according to its website, including playing important roles in how policymakers understand the ICT sector and engagement with “parliamentarian members”.
“We enjoy the strong parliamentarian engagement, which is constantly increasing,” the APPG website states. It also boasts of having “one of the highest numbers of parliamentarian officers of any APPG and 100 different parliamentarians attended at least one of our events in 2021”.
In a statement, Orlando Wind-Cowie, group secretariat of the ICT APPG and account director at Lodgestone Communications, told Tech Monitor that the APPG is committed to championing a range of diverse voices to help the tech sector “further collaborate with legislators”.
When asked about how funds provided by Big Tech firms were used, he explained: “Funds raised by the group are spent on the costs associated with running events – using online platforms, costs of room bookings, catering, and admin – as well as the cost of website maintenance, accountancy costs, secretariat services and event collateral such as banners and nameplates.”
He continued that PICTFOR reports in line with the registrar’s rules, publishing income and expenditure statements on the group’s website. It also provides additional information such as the details of the APPG’s expenditure in its annual accounts, which it makes available to the public.
“The secretariat holds itself to these same high standards on transparency, meeting all reporting requirements set by the parliamentary authorities and the registrar,” he said.
Do UK MPs work with Chinese tech companies?
The role of Chinese tech companies funding the group’s activities is likely to raise eyebrows. According to the APPG’s register, TikTok contributed £6,000 to the APPG in 2022. Tech Monitor has contacted the company for clarification on the financial benefits provided to the APPG.
Data from the Westminster Accounts investigation also shows that Chinese telecoms manufacturer Huawei has contributed £18,000 toward the APPG since 2019. It is also named as an involved industry stakeholder on PICTFOR’s website. Tech Monitor has contacted Huawei for comment on the financial benefits provided to the APPG.
Huawei 5G equipment is currently being stripped from UK networks after the government banned telcos from purchasing its products in 2020 over security concerns that emanate from the company’s close ties to the Chinese government. An order issued in October says all pieces of kit must be removed by 2027.
TikTok’s use of data was questioned by MPs last year when the UK parliament decided to launch a TikTok account. This was quickly shut down when a group of lawmakers wrote to the speakers of the House of Commons to say they were “surprised and disappointed” at the move. “The prospect of Xi Jinping’s government having access to personal data on our children’s phones ought to be a cause for major concern,” the MPs said at the time. They urged Parliament to remove the account until “credible assurances can be given that no data whatsoever can be transferred to China”.
In their response, the speakers said: “This account was an attempt to engage with younger audiences – who are not always active on our existing social media platforms. However, in light of your feedback and concerns expressed to us, we have decided that the account should be closed with immediate effect.”
When asked about taking financial benefits from Chinese companies such as Huawei or TikTok, PICTFOR said that Huawei does not currently contribute financially to the APPG and is also not currently involved.