Inside Facebook Ireland: ‘It’s tough. It’s hard work. It’s exhausting’

Gareth Lambe, head of Facebook Ireland, talks data breaches, hate speech and EU threats

This is the first year Facebook will take part in Open House Dublin. The social network's Dublin headquarters will be open to the public on October 15th but this event is now fully booked

 

The outdoor terrace at the top of Facebook’s international headquarters in Dublin gives the social media giant a bird’s eye view of Google’s office blocks on nearby Barrow Street, including its new ones at the former Boland’s Mill site.

“Yes, I normally have a telescope here but I took that down,” Facebook Ireland chief Gareth Lambe jokes as we take a whistle-stop tour of its funky office, which houses about 2,200 employees and 94 nationalities.

Facebook is set for pastures new following its announcement on Thursday that it has secured agreement to lease the entire 14-acre Bankcentre campus in Ballsbridge, which AIB is vacating.

It’s a statement of Facebook’s long-term commitment to Ireland, according to Lambe, giving it headroom to add another 5,000 roles to its Irish workforce. It already has 4,000 employees at two buildings in Dublin, a data centre in Clonee, Co Meath, and a lab in Cork.

“When completed, [Ballsbridge] will have 870,000sq ft of office space and there will be capacity for 7,000 desks,” he says. “It’s a very long-term investment and it gives us a lot of room for growth, and an ability to plan strategically.”

The campus will be developed over the next three years, with staff at Facebook and its subsidiaries moving there over three phases, beginning in March or April next year.

Facebook started in Ireland with a “landing team” of 30 in late 2008. Lambe says it is a “great country to invest in”, although there are “risks in the future”. He cites housing as the number-one lobbying item for the American Ireland Chamber of Commerce, where he is on the board of directors.

“The affordability and scarcity of residential accommodation is something that we’re worried about. I’m confident the Government has realised it’s a burning platform and is doing everything it can, and this should loosen up in a few years. But it’s definitely something that is a potential risk to hiring in the future.

“We will have our own direct access to Lansdowne Road Dart station and I’m hoping that the net will widen considerably for our employees in terms of places to live and there won’t be as much pressure on living in the city centre.”

Tax is another issue high on the agenda of US multinationals in Ireland. Earlier this week, European Union finance ministers failed to reach agreement on a European Commission proposal to implement a 3 per cent digital sales tax, a levy being pushed by France.

Corporation tax

It’s a measure that could have negative implications for Ireland, given that a large number of internet companies, including Facebook and Google, have their regional headquarters here. The impact on our corporation tax receipts is estimated at about €160 million.

Ireland opposes the proposed levy, preferring to wait for the outcome of an OECD process to agree a framework for taxing such activity on a global basis. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lambe supports this approach. “Our preference is for the EU and all countries to follow this OECD Beps [Base Erosion and Profit Sharing] project, which is a global initiative co-ordinated as opposed to unilateral smaller arrangements,” he says.

“Whether it results in more tax, which it probably will, it’s the planned and co-ordinated predictable certainty of it. In terms of Paschal Donohoe and Ireland, I think he is right to resist this to help Ireland Inc in terms of its attractiveness.

“For us, we are [tax] compliant in all the countries that we operate in and we will be whether it’s a digital sales tax, OECD or whatever.”

Lambe also notes that Facebook has moved to a “local selling model”.

“In the European countries where we have a sales office with employees, we are recognising the revenue sold by those offices in those markets so that tax income goes into the local market.

“It’s difficult when there’s intellectual property as to where it should be [taxed]. That’s why the OECD [process] is important.

“My own view is that we will end up paying more tax in whatever mechanism is used and that’s fine. We just want to make sure it’s done in a planned and co-ordinated way.”

On our tour of the office, we pass its newly updated “insights wall”, an interactive map that shows Facebook activity around the world. Lambe clicks on Ireland and it tells us there are 2.8 million active monthly users here – 2.3 million daily.

Facebook’s biggest market is no longer the United States (217 million monthly users, 166 million daily) but India, where it has about 300 million users. During the summer, the Indian government asked Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp to act to prevent the spread of “irresponsible and explosive” messages amid a spate of mob lynchings of strangers based around rumours of child kidnappings.

‘Tough year’

It was just one of a number of controversies that Facebook has had to deal with in what Lambe describes as a “tough year”. Earlier this year, it emerged that a data company called Cambridge Analytica had used personal information harvested from more than 50 million Facebook accounts to build a system that could target American voters with political advertising based on their individual profiles.

Details emerged via a whistleblower contractor called Christopher Wylie, who helped build the algorithm.

Facebook, which had known about the breach since 2015, took out ads apologising for the breach. In April, Mark Zuckerberg was forced to go before a powerful US Congress committee to explain Facebook’s role in this scandal.

“It was really disappointing for all of us,” Lambe says. “It was my lowest moment in Facebook. It was clear that we didn’t do enough up to 2014 to protect our users’ data from malicious actors.

“Since then, I’ve been really pleased with the actions we’ve taken. It’s good in the sense that it has us much better prepared for the next five to 10 years in terms of that understanding of the responsibility we have to make sure that stuff is much more buttoned-up.

“I’ve also been pleased with how we’ve collaborated across the company. We believe we were best in class for GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] when that came through [in May].

“Cambridge Analytica was disappointing, there were a lot of learnings from it but it was all locked down many years ago and there were a lot of actions following up. But it was a low point.”

At the Web Summit this week, Wylie accused the big tech companies of colonising our society. “As a very active player in the misuse of the data in Cambridge Analytica, I’m not sure Chris Wylie is who we should be looking to for guidance or inspiration,” Lambe says.

“What people tend to forget is that we’re providing a really useful service to the 2.3 billion people on Facebook. We know we need to explain better to them how it works, give them more control over it. That’s a lot of our focus.

“I think [more] regulation is coming down the road and we welcome that. We’re trying to make sure it’s done in a way that fully understands the internet.”

Lambe says Facebook is “heavily regulated” by the Data Protection Commission in Ireland, which is responsible for oversight of its EU activities, given that it is based out of Dublin.

Political advertising

Many would argue that the Irish commission does not have the necessary financial resources or staffing to regulate the multibillion-dollar social media giant but Lambe disagrees. “Speaking from the inside, working with the data protection regulator and having been involved in their audits, I can tell you that they are extremely thorough with Facebook. But I do agree that they need a lot more resources, especially post-GDPR for all the tech companies . . . and we have also lobbied the Government to increase investment there. We would absolutely agree that they need to be staffed much more.”

Of course, to avoid a repeat of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook could just ban political advertising. Lambe says its “not big money for us and would lead to a much easier life” but “part of the power of Facebook for positivity and good is the social movements that happen on Facebook”.

Lambe says the “massive changes and improvements” introduced by Facebook in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal are working. “I think we are going to be fairly pleased with how these [US] midterm elections have worked out . . . in terms of those remediations we have set up.

“But this is never going to be completely eradicated. It’s going to be an arms race against well-resourced, smart people. We can’t do it on our own, we’re looking to partner with governments and security organisations to get ahead of this.”

Facebook’s “mission” is to “make the world more inclusive and bring communities together”, he argues. However, the company also stands accused of providing a platform for cranks and extremists to promote hate speech.

In July, the Channel 4 programme Dispatches revealed that Facebook moderators were instructed not to remove extreme, abusive or graphic content from the platform even when it violated the company’s guidelines.

The moderators were contracted from Irish recruiter CPL. Violent videos involving assaults on children, racially charged hate speech and images of self-harm among underage users all remained on Facebook after being reported by users and reviewed by moderators.

Lambe says Facebook is conducting a “pretty intensive investigation” with CPL. “Our enforcement teams as well as our policy teams are conducting that with CPL at the moment to see if we can identify where there were any breakdowns, where is the policy and was there some misrepresentation or misunderstanding of it, and if we need to take any action.”

‘Malicious intent’

The Irishman expects that process to conclude in the “next few weeks”. Will anyone be held accountable?

“I’m going to wait for the outcome of that investigation. Certainly, if there’s any breakdowns or processes or training, or if there was any malicious intent by anyone, of course we’ll act on that. I just don’t know the answers to that at the moment.

“Obviously we were disappointed in some of the outcomes of that programme and there were clearly failings in our systems. But this space is very complex and difficult . . . there’s a lot of subjectivity in things like freedom of speech versus hate speech, taste, offence – these things are very subjective.”

What about CPL’s role?

“There were definitely some comments made by some of the employees that weren’t true to our values . . . and that was disappointing because it gave an opportunity to cast aspersions. But we have to take responsibility because, at the end of the day, they are a partner of ours. The relationship continues at the moment but we are investigating that thoroughly.”

Lambe has two roles with Facebook. He runs its business planning and sales operations for all regions outside the US. In addition, he heads up the Irish unit, and sits on the boards of its various companies and subsidiaries.

He’s met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg a “few times” but doesn’t have one-to-ones with him. “My track on my functional role, because it’s on the revenue side, would be more up to [chief operating officer] Sheryl Sandberg. This year, I’ve probably met her two or three times.”

As we close, Lambe looks at the decade ahead and predicts the likely shape of Facebook. “Facebook and social media started out as text-based, then it was about photographs, and now it’s more about video. It will become predominantly about video and visual and much less text.

“We’re investing heavily in virtual and augmented reality. We believe that could be the next operating platform after mobile. You’re probably talking about a 10 or 15-year timeframe where that becomes mainstream.”

Will Facebook survive that long or lose out to rivals who appeal more to a younger audience?

“We are still growing tens of millions of users every quarter. I think [social media] will fragment but I think we will still be very relevant to people. For a lot of people, it’s a scrapbook of their lives.”

Lambe has been with Facebook since 2011. Does he see himself as a company lifer?

“Oh I don’t know. I certainly see a few milestones that I’d like to see through here. It’s tough. It’s hard work. It’s exhausting. But if I wasn’t working somewhere that was so relevant to the world . . . if I was manufacturing widgets in a different part of the country, would I miss it? I think I would. It’s incredibly stimulating and incredibly important and a huge opportunity.”

CV

Name: Gareth Lambe

Age: 45

Job: Facebook Ireland manager

Why in the news? Facebook plans to move to a new campus in Ballsbridge, which will allow it to add 5,000 roles here over time.

Lives: Monkstown

Family: Married with three children

Hobbies: “Sports junkie. Play football, run and watch all sports. Support Leinster, Manchester United, Ireland, Roger Federer. ”

Something we might expect: He’s on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. “I have my settings set to private for family and friends. I don’t publish publicly. I’m not on Twitter.”

Something that might surprise: “I’m half-Spanish. My mother is Basque so I’ve fluent Spanish. People don’t expect that when they look at me.”