Facebook has targeted politicians around the world including the former chancellor, George Osborne promising investments and incentives while seeking to pressure them into lobbying on Facebook’s behalf against data privacy legislation, an explosive new leak of internal Facebook documents has revealed.
The documents, which have been seen by the Observer and Computer Weekly, reveal a secretive global lobbying operation that has targeted hundreds of legislators and regulators in an attempt to procure influence across the world, including in the UK, US, Canada, India, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia and all 28 member states of the EU. The documents include details of how Facebook:
- Lobbied politicians across Europe in a strategic operation to head off overly restrictive GDPR legislation. The document includes extraordinary claims that the Irish prime minister said his country could exercise significant influence as president of the EU, promoting Facebook’s interests even though technically it was supposed to remain neutral.
- Used chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist memoir Lean In to “bond” with female European commissioners it viewed as hostile.
- Threatened to withhold investment from countries unless they supported or passed Facebook-friendly laws.
The documents appear to emanate from a court case against Facebook by the app developer Six4Three in California, and reveal that Sandberg considered European data protection legislation a critical threat to the company.
A memo written after the Davos economic summit in 2013 quotes Sandberg describing the uphill battle the company faced in Europe on the data and privacy front and its critical efforts to head off overly prescriptive new laws.
Most revealingly, it includes details of its great relationship with Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, one of a number of people it describes as “friends of Facebook.
Ireland plays a key role in regulating technology companies in Europe because its data protection commissioner acts on behalf of all 28 member states. The memo has inflamed data protection advocates, who have long complained about the company’s cosy relationship with the Irish government.
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”. It then goes on to say that Ireland is poised to take on the presidency of the EU and therefore has the opportunity to influence the European Data Directive decisions.
It makes the extraordinary claim that Kenny offered to use the significant influence of the EU presidency as a means of influencing other EU member states even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role.
Kenny, who resigned from office in 2017, did not respond to the Observer’s request for comment.
John Naughton, a Cambridge academic and Observer writer who studies the democratic implications of digital technology, said the leak was explosive in the way it revealed the vassalage of the Irish state to the big tech companies. Ireland had welcomed the companies, he noted, but became caught between a rock and a hard place. Its leading politicians apparently saw themselves as covert lobbyists for a data monster.
The 2013 memo, written by Marne Levine, who is now a Facebook senior executive, was cc-ed to Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s then head of policy and global communications, the role now occupied by Nick Clegg.
As well as Kenny, dozens of other politicians, US senators and European commissioners are mentioned by name, including then Indian president Pranab Mukherjee, Michel Barnier, now the EU’s Brexit negotiator, and Osborne.
The then chancellor used the meeting with Sandberg to ask Facebook to invest in the UK government’s Tech City venture, the memo claims, and Sandberg said she would review any proposal. In exchange, she asked him to become even more active and vocal in the European Data Directive debate and really help shape the proposals. The memo claims Osborne asked for a detailed briefing and said he would figure out how to get more involved.
He offered to host a launch for Sandberg’s book in Downing Street, an event that went ahead in spring 2013.
Facebook and other US tech firms, in private, as in public, raised concerns about the proposed European Data Directive. To your specific inquiry, I didn’t follow up on those concerns, or lobby the EU, because I didn’t agree with them.
He noted it was not a secret that he had helped launch Sandberg’s book at 11 Downing Street and added: The book’s message about female empowerment was widely praised, not least in the Guardian and the Observer.
In fact, the memo reveals that Sandberg’s feminist memoir was perceived as a lobbying tool by the Facebook team and a means of winning support from female legislators for Facebook’s wider agenda.
In a particularly revealing account of a meeting with Viviane Reding, the influential European commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, the memo notes her key role as the architect of the European Data Directive and describes the company’s difficult relationship with her owing to her being, it claims, not a fan of American companies.