We should not get overly friendly with Facebook

As global regulators scrutinise social network’s activities, we need to tread carefully

Filings on the lobbying register show Facebook still engages closely with the Government, including meetings with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. File photograph: Reuters

Filings on the lobbying register show Facebook still engages closely with the Government, including meetings with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. File photograph: Reuters

 

As regulators on both sides of the Atlantic ominously circle Facebook, the Government here would be wise to not repeat past mistakes by allowing Ireland to be seen as too close a friend of the social networking giant.

On Friday, Facebook’s shares fell when the New York attorney general announced that she is involved in an anti-trust examination of Facebook for eight US states and the District of Columbia. The company is also under the microscope of US federal anti-trust regulators.

The US investigations ought not to unduly concern this State. But it also emerged this week that European Union anti-trust investigators are seeking information on Facebook’s proposed Libra currency.

Any moves in Brussels to mount an anti-trust or data privacy offensive against Facebook will create obvious reputational risks for Ireland, given the company’s international headquarters is located here. With almost 6,000 staff, it is one of the biggest private employers in the State.

The European Commission case against Apple and its Irish tax deal illustrates the risks for any small state that allows the perception to develop that it has a cosy relationship with a foreign investor. Ireland looked faintly ridiculous for having to challenge a finding that Apple owes it €13 billion.

Earlier this year, reports in the Observer newspaper in the UK claimed that former taoiseach Enda Kenny offered to use “significant influence” of the EU presidency in 2013 to lobby other EU member states on EU data protection laws, promoting Facebook’s interests, “even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role”.

Making world headlines

Helen Dixon, the data protection commissioner since 2014, and her predecessor Billy Hawkes said that neither Mr Kenny nor his officials while he was taoiseach sought to influence the regulation of data protection rules to the benefit of the social media giant. But by then the issue had made headlines around the world.

Filings on the lobbying register show Facebook still engages closely with the Government, including meetings with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Freedom of Information requests have revealed recent exchanges of letters between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.

As Facebook’s activities here and abroad are raked over in Brussels, Washington, New York and who knows where else, the State needs to tread carefully in its dealings with the social media giant.

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