Colleagues deny Kenny helped Facebook to limit web privacy law

Creighton rejects claims that former leader pushed for web giant as ‘absolute nonsense’

Current and former Fine Gael colleagues of Enda Kenny have defended the former taoiseach against claims that he helped Facebook's efforts to lobby against restrictive EU online privacy laws.

The social media giant said in an internal company email that Mr Kenny told Facebook executives at a private meeting in January 2013 that he "could exercise significant influence" during Ireland's presidency of the EU in the first half of that year, promoting Facebook's interests on the reforms of EU data privacy laws.

Mr Kenny allegedly suggested this "even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role", said Facebook's then vice-president of global public policy Marne Levine, in an email to colleagues after the company's executives met the then Fine Gael leader at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Opposition politicians have called for a full explanation on what Facebook understood from their discussions with Mr Kenny and what undertakings he gave as taoiseach.

The Mayo TD and Fine Gael have made no comment on the claims based on documents reported by Computer Weekly and The Observer with Duncan Campbell, a journalist.

Facebook has declined to discuss the content of the documents because they are sealed in a California court in a legal case taken by an app developer, but said they “tell one side of a story and omit important context”.

Lucinda Creighton, who was minister of state for European Affairs in Mr Kenny's government during the EU presidency in 2013, said it was "absolutely nonsense" to suggest that he or his government pushed Facebook's interests to head off the overly restrictive General and Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law.

“’At no stage were we advancing a sort of go-soft approach on data regulation,” Ms Creighton said. “In fact, we were at pains to be neutral and every official who was working on the file was told that we couldn’t abuse the presidency and our mandate was to be an honest broker.”

Where the Government did have “wriggle room” was to make the overhaul of EU data protection laws one of its priorities during the six-month Irish presidency of the EU, she said.

Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly, who was "rapporteur" for the European Parliament's industry committee for the GDPR legislation, said that he was "absolutely not" lobbied by Mr Kenny on changes to data privacy law.

Private dinner

Mr Kelly said he had an “open policy” to meet all interested parties, big and small, to discuss the law and he had about 300 meetings over a two-year period including with executives from Facebook.

The internal Facebook memo, seen by The Irish Times, said that the web giant’s executives attended a private dinner at the Davos economic think-in “hosted by senior Irish politicians to work through the various ways that the Irish could be helpful on the EU data directive”.

Barry O'Leary, who was chief executive of IDA Ireland at the time and accompanied Mr Kenny in Davos, said the State agency began hosting a private dinner for senior executives several years earlier.

The dinner was part of the government’s charm offensive to encourage large multinationals to invest or invest more in Ireland after the the country’s reputation was damaged by the economic crash.

“That was part of our marketing,” he said.

He said Facebook attended these dinners, which were hosted by Mr Kenny and in some years with former minister for finance Michael Noonan, but he had no memory of Facebook discussing data privacy in 2013.

Ms Levine told Facebook’s public policy team in her email on the company’s lobbying of leaders at Davos that Mr Kenny “couldn’t take his hands” out of the hair of Charlton Gholson, then a Facebook executive, during a meeting.

“Literally. He was fascinated,” she wrote of Mr Kenny’s interest in Mr Gholson’s curly hair.

In an address to the International Institute for European Affairs think tank in Dublin in May 2013, Ms Levine congratulated the government's leadership for "shepherding" EU data protection law so far at the European Council, recognising officials from Mr Kenny's office at the event.

On Monday evening, Mr Varadkar sought to play down claims that Mr Kenny offered to help Facebook with the GDPR law.

“We totally beefed up the role of the Data Protection Commissioner when Enda Kenny took over as taoiseach,” he said.

“ It was a small, under-resourced office headquartered over a Spar and he really took that on and expanded it.

“They have confirmed that they never received any lobbying on behalf of Facebook or any other company by Enda Kenny as taoiseach.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent