Caveat: Facebook’s IOG case spells OMG for Ireland

Big tech firms brought the risk that the Irish courts might become a magnet for disputes

 

When Facebook, Twitter and Google established their international headquarters in Dublin, they didn’t just bring investment, exotic tax accounting practices and international workforces sporting wonderful beards and vintage necklaces. They also brought the risk that the Irish courts and data protection regime might become a magnet for disputes involving disaffected internet users across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

What an unexpected byproduct of Ireland’s foreign direct investment policy.

It emerged in last week’s Sunday Times that Ismail Omar Guelleh, the all-powerful president of the tiny east African state of Djibouti, is suing Facebook Ireland in the High Court in Dublin.

IOG, as he is affectionately known by his supporters (pretty much every Djiboutian who speaks publicly), has hired Johnsons, the Belfast firm of celebrity libel lawyer Paul Tweed, to seek an injunction against Facebook.

Tweed, whose clients have included the spoon-bender Uri Geller and David Miscavige, the leader of the chippy Church of Scientology, wouldn’t comment this week. But his client is presumably trying to restrain publication of something critical and allegedly defamatory of IOG on a Facebook page.

Facebook Ireland runs the group’s African operations, so if one of the continent’s traditional political strongmen (and they are overwhelmingly almost all men) wants to challenge posts legally, it must ultimately target the Irish unit.

Guelleh didn’t respond to a request for comment. He is presumably too busy gearing up for next month’s election, which looks set to deliver him a fourth term in power and entry into his third decade as president.

After IOG changed the constitution to allow him to run again the last time, he promised that would be his third and final term. He must hope voters, more than 80 per cent of whom backed him in 2011 in a result that would make even Valdimir Putin blush, don’t punish him for breaking his promise. I bet they don’t.

Friendly dictatorship

Tiny Djibouti, a pro-business western ally across the Red Sea from Yemen, was described by the respected Foreign Policy magazine as a “friendly little dictatorship” under IOG’s rule. Friendly, its critics allege, until you criticise the regime. Especially on Facebook.

Maydaneh Abdallah Okieh, a journalist and opposition activist, recently served five months in jail for posting photographs on Facebook of police battering opposition protesters.

Reporters sans frontières, meanwhile, in January criticised the detention of another Djiboutian journalist, Mohamed Ibrahim Waiss. He alleged officers beat him until he gave them the password to his Facebook account, from which they allegedly made posts criticising the regime’s political opponents.

That’s not to suggest that IOG is in any way responsible for any of these heinous acts. But you can imagine it might rankle with some to have the president of Djibouti, the “friendly dictatorship”, coming to Ireland to vindicate his good name.

IOG’s case, if it reaches court, will be high-profile but a quick trawl of High Court records shows that, as yet, the floodgates have not opened with cases from foreign litigants against international web giants operating from Ireland.

Facebook has faced 13 separate legal actions in the Irish courts in the last five years, but most of those were from aggrieved Irish citizens. Limerick financier JP McManus, for example, sued it in 2011 to shut down a fake profile purporting to be him. The imposter pretended to be JP while uttering nuggets like “Ireland is in shite”.

Twitter, which also switched to Ireland for data protection purposes last year, has faced just six court Irish actions. And Google, which has been here more than a decade, has been the respondent in 13 cases. But again, Irish plaintiffs dominate the list. Tweed, perhaps the most high-profile libel lawyer on the international block, has previously suggested Ireland could see many cases of foreign litigants coming to this country to sue internet companies for defamation.

Quite reasonably, he highlighted the difficulty some internet users have in getting internet companies to remove “abusive, threatening and harassing comments” from their websites.

“There’s a great frustration with social media sites around the world,” he once told Barrister magazine.

Investment vs litigation

But the notion that Ireland’s court system will become a hunting ground for soft targets should be unwelcome. The State attracted the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google to these shores with highly competitive tax and investment policies. It will be interesting to see if their satisfaction with the friendly business regime here holds firm if they are increasingly sued to exploit Ireland’s altogether tougher – for publishers – regime surrounding defamation and privacy.

If the floodgates do open, and foreign litigants win those cases regularly and make off with lots of “djibooty” at the internet giants’ expense, pertinent questions may start to be asked.

****

Footnotes . . .

US president Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba this week raised the prospect of further easing of the economic embargo the United States has deployed with devastating effect to cripple its little neighbour’s economy since 1960.

However, Martin Connolly, a former publican with links to Cuba, was quick out of the blocks on Wednesday to reassure Irish businesses that sanctions shouldn’t deter them. Connolly, who previously ran the Gastropub Company in Dún Laoghaire and is now trying to assemble consortiums to buy pub loans from “vulture” funds and banks, is a founder of the Cuban Business Gateway.

The venture is essentially a consultancy, which claims to be able to help foreign businesses that want to do business in Cuba. Connolly’s brother is married to a Cuban and it was through this link that he established connections with the Cuban embassy in Dublin. Connolly has been working for several years on a plan to open an Irish pub in Cuba in conjunction with authorities there, although it has yet to come to fruition.

He claims he has built up contacts in the process, however.

Cuba Business Gateway is planning to organise a “familiarisation trip” to Cuba later this year for businesses considering doing trying to do business there.

Perhaps somebody should send an invite to Denis O’Brien. Digicel, his Caribbean mobile company, must surely fancy its chances of a crack at the undeveloped Cuban market, should it ever open up.

****

The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (Isme) is not known for the subtlety of its public pronouncements. Its regular online newsletter is often a sight to behold.

This week’s missive was penned under the glorious headline “Brexit, Trumpit, Bullshit, Do it”. They’d never get away with this sort of linguistic chutzpah at some of the stuffier business lobby groups.

The piece, somewhat against the grain, argues Brexit could present as many opportunities as threats for Irish businesses. It said Trumpit – the possible election as US president of the Big Bouffant (or should that be Buffoon?) – is another risk of which Irish policymakers should be wary.

It concludes: “The [real] threat is not Brexit or Trumpit. The real threat is at home with our pork barrel politicians trying to cling to power. “They’ll offer anyone anything. There’s already the Luas, now CIÉ, then ESB and the teachers. It looks like Haddington Road is going down the S-bend. This is not Easter, this is Christmas for public sector unions.”

****

Filings for FAM Assets, a company linked to D2 developer Deirdre Foley, show QREA Ireland, the local division of the US lender that backed her Natrium buyout of Clerys, has also provided finance for the consortium’s recent purchase of the Spire portfolio of properties adjacent to Clerys.

QREA has taken a mortgage out on the portfolio of properties on O’Connell Street and Sackville Street, which were on the market for €10 million.

While Clerys will remain shuttered for this weekend’s 1916 commemorations, Foley had the good sense to remind someone to fly the Irish Tricolour from the roof of the building, where it has been fluttering since last week.

Patriotism and all that.

****

Tullow Oil reportedly took part in discussions this week between the leaders of Kenya and Uganda over the building of a pipeline between the two countries, from which Tullow would benefit.

According to local reports, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni was due in Nairobi to hold talks with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta. Tullow executives were said to be present, along with Chinese oil executives.

It has been a tough couple of years for Tullow, which has seen its share price collapse along with the price of oil.

As chief executive Aidan Heavey this week watched Smurfit Kappa banging on the door of the FTSE 100, Tullow’s old stomping ground, he must be wondering if his company will ever return to the blue-chip index.

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