Facebook’s lobbying practices on data privacy are called into question

4 Mar 2019

Facebook offices in Dublin. Image: Faithee/Depositphotos

Spotlight now on how Facebook targeted politicians around the world to influence data privacy legislation.

New claims have been made that Facebook lobbied legislators around the world – including Ireland – to influence data privacy legislation, and in some cases may have promised or threatened to withhold investment.

Lobbying isn’t a new practice, and nor is it illegal, but the scale of the alleged operation is significant.

An investigation published by The Observer newspaper at the weekend revealed the existence of documents suggesting a sophisticated lobbying operation that targeted hundreds of legislators and regulators to procure influence.

Countries included the UK, US, Canada, India, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia and all 28 states of the EU.

Inflammatory claims

It is claimed that Facebook lobbied politicians across Europe – including former UK chancellor George Osborne; former Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD; and dozens of other politicians, US senators and European commissioners – to try and head off GDPR legislation, which became law in May last year, and which Facebook feared would be “overly restrictive”.

The Observer report claims that COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In memoir was used to try to bond with female European commissioners that the company viewed as hostile.

The report claims Facebook threatened to withhold investment from countries unless they supported or passed Facebook-friendly laws.

It even contains inflammatory claims that Kenny was described in the documents as being among “friends of Facebook” who could exercise significant influence during the presidency of the EU to promote Facebook’s interests.

The memo documents in question emanate from a court case against Facebook by the app developer Six4Three in California. A memo, written after the Davos economic summit, indicates that Sandberg was concerned about the “uphill battle” Facebook faced in Europe on the data privacy front.

According to The Observer, the memo notes Kenny’s “appreciation” for Facebook’s decision to locate its headquarters in Dublin and points out that the new proposed data protection legislation was a “threat to jobs, innovation and economic growth in Europe”. The report will no doubt inflame data protection campaigners who have previously hit out at Facebook’s alleged “cosy relationship” with the Irish Government.

Claims of lobbying by Facebook in Ireland aren’t actually new. The Irish Independent newspaper reported in 2017 on documents released under the Freedom of Information Act that Sandberg was granted extraordinary access to Kenny and lobbied him at meetings in Davos and California.

In 2013 and 2014, Sandberg is said to have lobbied the Irish Government on two fronts: taxation and allegations that the social network handed users’ private data to US intelligence.

The 2017 newspaper report pointed to correspondence suggesting that Sandberg even tried to influence the appointment of a successor to former Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes.

The Observer report does not exactly cover Ireland in glory, with one interviewee, Cambridge academic and columnist John Naughton, saying: “Its leading politicians apparently saw themselves as covert lobbyists for a data monster.”

A Facebook spokesperson said that the documents were still under seal in a California court and that it could not respond to them in any detail.

In recent weeks Siliconrepublic.com reported that Facebook plans to bring its total headcount in Ireland to about 5,000, with Sandberg revealing plans to recruit 1,000 new people at its operation in Dublin.

Facebook offices in Dublin. Image: Faithee/Depositphotos

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years