Facebook’s past is still haunting it and now a number of documents, accessed by the Observer and Computer Weekly have revealed a secret global lobbying operation by the company, targeted towards regulators in several countries, with an aim to procure influence across the world. The targets were legislators from countries, including India, UK, US, Canada, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil, Malaysia and all 28 member states of the EU.
The documents reveal that Facebook targeted politicians around the world, including the former Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain George Osborne and former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee by promising investments and incentives “while seeking to pressure them into lobbying on Facebook’s behalf against data privacy legislation” in the respective countries.
The documents reveal that the social media giant lobbied politicians across Europe to head off “overly restrictive” GDPR legislation. They even claim 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. Facebook is even accused of using its Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s feminist book Lean In to “bond” with female European commissioners it viewed as hostile.
Reportedly, Facebook threatened to withhold investment from countries unless they supported or passed Facebook-friendly laws. The documents apparently became accessible during a court case against Facebook by the app developer Six4Three in California, and they reveal that Sandberg considered European data protection legislation a “critical” threat to the company.
The documents reveal 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”. The documents centres around Ireland because the country plays a key role in regulating technology companies in Europe because its data protection commissioner acts for all 28 member states. Apart from Kenny, dozens of other politicians are mentioned by name, including Pranab Mukherjee. We cannot confirm the degree of influence that the company had on Indian authorities.
Last year, Justice Srikrishna Committee submitted the much-awaited report on Data Protection and the draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2018 to Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY). The aim of the law is to ensure a free and fair digital Indian economy and it is seen as a framework which gives the Indian citizens full freedom to protect their data.
The Indian privacy laws are said to have taken cues from the already present legal frameworks in different countries, such as GDPR in Europe, America’s laissez-faire approach and The Chinese Cybersecurity Law. However, the European Union (EU) in November said that the data localisation requirements that the MeitY had proposed in the draft bill are unnecessary and potentially harmful for business and investments.
Meanwhile, a Facebook spokesperson reportedly said that the documents were still under seal in a Californian court and it could not respond to them in any detail: “Like the other documents that were cherrypicked and released in violation of a court order last year, these by design tell one side of a story and omit important context.”