Revealed: Facebook’s War Against Data Privacy Laws

March 3, 2019

Social network targeted legislators around the world, promising or threatening to withhold investment

Facebook has targeted politicians around the world – including the former UK 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 targeting 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 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. They include 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 the company’s “great relationship” with Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister at the time, 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 for 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”.

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