Ireland has traded jobs for managing the world’s online data

Caveat: Ireland’s good name will eventually take a hit for inviting in the tech masters of the universe

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Silicon Valley, California. Facebook has confirmed it plans to create hundreds of new jobs in Ireland next year. Photograph: Suzanne Lynch

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Silicon Valley, California. Facebook has confirmed it plans to create hundreds of new jobs in Ireland next year. Photograph: Suzanne Lynch

 

In coaxing the tech masters of the universe into opening their international headquarters in Dublin, the State wrote them a blank cheque in reputational terms. Whether it is for facilitating the tech giants’ exotic tax-avoiding practices or their data-privacy failures, Ireland’s good name will eventually take a hit for it.

The Vesuvian eruption this week over Facebook’s disregard for its users’ privacy in the antics of Cambridge Analytica is merely the latest confirmation that, sooner or later, these reputational Paddy cheques will be cashed. And Ireland will have to pay up.

Think of all the private data on billions of individuals handled by the Irish operations of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Dropbox and all the rest whose international HQs are here.

Think about how a nation of less than five million people, with an economic over-reliance on these same companies for employment, is supposed to competently police all of this for the non-US world.

Interested in the global debates around hate speech and online abuse, internet fake news or electoral manipulation through social media? The roads to all of those hot-button issues career straight through Dublin’s Docklands, where the internet giants’ non-US global headquarters are domiciled – for tax and data purposes.

Think about how prepared Ireland is to ride this rodeo. Then factor in how capable, really, is our weakened, one-legged government of managing this mountain of oversight. Then consider the historical Irish preference, in any event, for eunuch regulators. Is the State ready for this?

These are the blank cheques that Ireland wrote to Silicon Valley in exchange for all those jobs and investment. It is too late now to ask if it is worth it. As those cheques get drawn, the risk is it could empty Ireland’s reputational coffers.

Laura Boldrini is a left-leaning Italian politician who was appointed speaker of its lower house of parliament in 2013. Since then she has been subject to a torrent of abuse by her rivals. The Northern League’s youth wing burned an effigy of her during the recent election campaign. Italy’s far-right leader Matteo Salvini mocked her with a blow-up doll. On Boldrini’s Facebook page they threaten her with rape. They post that she is a terrorist sympathiser, and a “handicapped whore”.

When Boldrini complained to Facebook a year ago that it was doing nothing to protect her, the company told her that online abuse from Italy was the responsibility of its Irish office, but it couldn’t say how many Italians worked there to help.

Instead of going to Dublin, Boldrini went to Reuters. Her plight, and Ireland’s unique position as the facilitator of the facilitator of the abuse, was broadcast around the globe.

World’s libel court

Ireland isn’t just the global centre of non-US data protection and oversight. It is now also the world’s libel court. If you are a disgruntled African dictator upset by political criticism, or a Middle Eastern militant with a penchant only for praise, it is to Dublin you must come to uphold your good name if it is threatened on Facebook or Twitter.

Yoweri Museveni has ruled Uganda for more than 30 years. In recent years, however, the corruption and excesses of the state architecture that is under Museveni’s control has been regularly highlighted on Facebook by a keyboard warrior known as Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, or TVO for short.

The Ugandan authorities have been desperately trying to uncover his identity, bombarding Facebook with demands for details. Who knows what Museveni’s men really want to do with TVO, but I bet it isn’t to bring him flowers.

Irish courts

In 2016, the issue arrived in Dublin. A prominent Ugandan lawyer claimed he had been defamed by TVO on Facebook, and asked the Irish courts to order the local arm of the social network to remove the posts.

The Ugandan also sought a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO), a legal discovery directive, that would oblige Facebook to reveal TVO’s true identity.

Mr Justice Donald Binchy, mindful that TVO was unlikely to be showered in kisses by the Ugandan authorities, declined.

A 2017 judgment by Mr Justice Binchy revealed details of an affidavit from Jack Gilbert, Facebook’s head lawyer for Europe. Gilbert said he received “dozens” of requests each year for NPOs and subscriber information, and it was Facebook’s policy, generally, not to oppose them.

Facebook demurred, however, at the requests from the Ugandans. Gilbert cited fears for TVO’s safety, and Uganda’s despicable human rights and free speech records. Mr Justice Binchy told Facebook to give TVO two weeks to remove any defamatory postings or he would be minded to accept a fresh NPO application from the Ugandan lawyer.

Ismail Omar Guelleh, the so-called “friendly dictator” whose family has ruled Djibouti for decades, has also previously resorted to Irish courts to try to quash online critics on account of Facebook’s Irish domicile.

So has Mohammad Dahlan, the former internal security chief of Fatah, who was upset that Twitter and Facebook were used to distribute a Middle East Eye piece allegedly defamatory of him.

TVO was still going strong this week, accusing various officials of corruption. But what will happen if his or another activist’s identity is one day ordered to be revealed by an Irish court, and some fatal accident later befalls them? What will Ireland say then to the human rights rapporteur who calls to the door? We did it for the jobs?

Whether it is data protection or online abuse or privacy, these sort of unwelcome issues will continue to land at Ireland’s door as a direct result of the fact that Dublin is home to the web giants’ international headquarters.

Through the tax-avoidance palaver that has trounced the State’s reputation, Ireland has cried sovereignty over most of Europe’s attempts to insert itself into the issue. But, really, we should begging Brussels for help when it comes to managing the world’s internet data. It’s too big of an issue. It is too risky for Ireland.

We need saving from ourselves.

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