Oliver Callan: Why does Ireland like Facebook so much?
It’s been left to British politicians and the British media to inform us about Facebook’s involvement in election manipulation
We’d already known about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s extraordinary access to Enda Kenny over several years and how she even lobbied over the appointment of a new Data Protection Commissioner.
Claims by Facebook that former Taoiseach Enda Kenny offered to lobby for softer laws on their behalf was big news in the UK recently. The Observer put it on its front page, describing the “vassalage” of Ireland towards Facebook and how our leaders act as “covert lobbyists for a data monster”. The reports revealed an uncomfortably cosy friendship. It included excruciating details about how Kenny kept stroking one Facebook executive’s hair.
In a no doubt unrelated move the Communications Minister Richard Bruton prompty announced something child protection experts have been seeking for years: a plan for a digital commissioner with powers to police and fine social media firms. The Government has been dragging its heels on these plans, fiercely opposed by Facebook, for years.
It was followed by Leo Varadkar playing down the Kenny revelations, saying the Data Protection Commissioner wasn’t lobbied by Kenny, even thought this was not the allegation. It was like being accused of shooting someone but coming out to announce that you’ve never stolen anything in your life.
The Facebook emails reveal a pally relationship with the State that could explain its freakish reluctance to regulate or even criticise the tech giant. We’d already known about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s extraordinary access to Enda Kenny over several years and how she even lobbied over the appointment of a new Data Protection Commissioner.
The special relationship continues into the new administration. Leo Varadkar met Facebook’s founder and biggest shareholder Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley just months into his premiership and the pair exchanged direct emails. He also met Ms Sandberg in Davos weeks later but did not raise the company’s data privacy problems.
The public register shows Facebook’s lobbyist Niamh Sweeney is a regular visitor to Government buildings. She previously worked for Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore so was within the environs of Kenny in 2013, at the time Facebook claim he was offering his concierge services.
Leo Varadkar’s playing down of the allegations against Kenny, which the former Taoiseach has not responded to, also involves the assertion that the powers of the Data Commissioner were “beefed up”. If the office was anywhere close to being able to regulate social media firms, then why is there a need now for a digital safety commissioner?
In truth, the Taoiseach has continued Kenny’s legacy of being soft on tech. The Government was at one with Facebook in setting the digital age of consent at 13 last year. Eventually, the Government lost the vote after opposition parties opted for 16 following a skilled campaign led by cyber psychologist Dr Mary Aiken and Barry O’Sullivan, a UCC professor.
Looking back now with knowledge of the Government “friendship” Facebook boasts about in its private emails, you have to wonder why Ireland was so gung-ho on the digital age issue. An age of 13 was far more valuable to Facebook as it would allow it to farm and monetise the data created by those aged 13 and up without parental consent.
Far from being tough on Facebook, the relationship got even cosier under Varadkar. The Taoiseach was the first to oversee State spending on Facebook ads and he cheered its expansion in Dublin without ever alluding directly to its data scandals. The IDA drooled over the company.
It’s been left to British politicians and the British media to inform us about Facebook’s involvement in election manipulation. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed a company that its accused of breaking its own rules on data privacy and constantly lying about it.
Its executives appear to treat parliamentary hearings into its activities with contempt. A British commons committee labelled the firm and its officers “digital gangsters” last month. They could just as easily fawn over the firm like Ireland does - it opened a new HQ in London last July for 6,000 staff, much larger than the campus it’s developing in Ballsbridge.
Jobs, jobs, jobs at any cost. Facebook has been shown to be company that breaks privacy and competition laws. It was found to be collecting data on women’s menstrual cycles from third party apps without consent. It’s been accused of abusing its own security features to harvest users’ mobile phone numbers. It profits from ads linked to harmful, dangerous and false content. It plays fast and loose with data it passes to others, benefitting hackers who interfered in recent European and American elections.
Facebook behaves in a way that no other multinational in Ireland does, yet ministers waffle about the importance of its investment. The IDA brags about its part in delivering Facebook’s job numbers. How hard can it be to attract a tech firm to a notorious tax haven who’s leaders personally promise special treatment and low regulation?
After it lost its battle to set the digital age of consent at 13, the Government set up a national advisory council for online safety. Its members include Facebook’s Niamh Sweeney. There was no invite for those who campaigned for the 16 age limit.
Instead, they lobbied to introduce a Seanad bill to set up a digital commissioner, an idea which the Government is now belatedly embracing.
Why is it taking so long? Turning a blind eye to Facebook’s practices can’t be just a hysterical ideology based around jobs for Dublin. Perhaps the fact of Facebook’s power and its uncanny ability to affect elections might have something to do with it?
Oliver Callan is a writer and satirist