Facebook pressed Irish ambassador to lobby US Congress members

Tech giant asked Daniel Mulhall to contact Friends of Ireland caucus over EU-US data transfers

Last September the Data Protection Commission made a preliminary ruling that personal data should not be sent by Facebook Ireland, the company’s EU headquarters, to its parent company in the US. Photograph:  Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty

Last September the Data Protection Commission made a preliminary ruling that personal data should not be sent by Facebook Ireland, the company’s EU headquarters, to its parent company in the US. Photograph: Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty

 

Facebook pressed the Irish Ambassador to the United States to lobby members of Congress on the negative impact a ban on data transfers between the US and the EU would have on the Irish economy, correspondence reveals.

Last September, the Data Protection Commission (DPC) made a preliminary ruling that personal data should not be sent by Facebook Ireland, the company’s EU headquarters, to its parent company in the US.

Facebook has taken a High Court case to have the draft ruling overturned, arguing it would have “extremely significant” effects on how it delivered services to more than 400 million Facebook and Instagram users in Europe.

Correspondence released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that Facebook asked Daniel Mulhall, Irish Ambassador to the US, to lobby the Government here and members of US Congress, over the data transfers issue.

In a letter dated October 8th, 2020, Erin Egan, Facebook vice-president and chief privacy officer, told Mr Mulhall the Irish data protection watchdog’s ruling “will cause massive disruption” for the tech company.

Ms Egan asked the ambassador to convey to the Government “the seriousness of the situation”, which if not urgently addressed would “undermine the transatlantic digital economy, including Ireland’s place at the center of that”.

Facebook was concerned that the DPC decision “would invalidate legal mechanisms that are currently available for EU-US data transfers, without providing any guidance on what steps we should take to continue our EU-US operations”, she said.

Facebook was not requesting the Government “intervene” in the DPC’s process, “or in any way undermine the necessary independence” of the commission, she added.

‘Extremely challenging time’

“We would value your intervention here in Washington with the bipartisan members of the US Congressional Friends of Ireland Caucus, to impress upon them the particular impact that an effective ban on data transfers would have on the Irish economy,” she said.

Ms Egan noted it was already an “extremely challenging time” for Ireland in the context of Brexit.

The Friends of Ireland group of Congress members was set up 40 years ago to support peace in Northern Ireland, and is part of a wider Washington network seen as favourable to Irish interests.

One senior diplomatic source said the request from Facebook to ask a country’s ambassador to lobby members of Congress was unusual. It is understood Mr Mulhall did not bring up the matter with the Friends of Ireland group.

Facebook also asked the Government to intervene at EU level to push for a new data transfer agreement between the EU and US.

‘Intervention’

Lobbying for the arrangement would “be an important statement of Ireland’s support for the transatlantic digital economy and demonstration of Ireland’s commitment to the free flow of data internationally”, Ms Egan said.

“We would value the intervention by the Government with the European Commission president, commissioners Reynders and Breton, and their teams, to impress upon them the critical importance of urgently pushing forward a long-term and stable EU-US deal on data flows,” she wrote.

A spokeswoman for Facebook said thousands of European and US businesses rely on the transfer of data between jurisdictions.

“Through both public statements and direct engagements, we’ve been calling on governments and policymakers to build a sustainable framework that supports data flows to other countries and legal systems, while ensuring that the fundamental rights of EU users are respected,” she said.