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Facebook asked George Osborne to influence EU data protection law

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg invited one of the chancellor’s children to Facebook’s office as part of a intensive lobbying programme to influence European data protection legislation

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, asked then chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne to be “even more active and vocal” in his concerns about European data protection legislation, and to “really help shape the proposals”, during a lobbying campaign to influence EU policy.

As part of attempts to woo Osborne, Sandberg invited one of his children to visit a Facebook office after the chancellor told her they were “desperate” to have a Facebook account, internal company documents seen by Computer Weekly and The Observer reveal.

Sandberg hoped to build on Osborne’s concerns over the costs of the proposed European Data Protection Directive – what would later become the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which could have a serious impact on Facebook’s business. 

The meeting took place at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2013 as top Facebook executives sought to influence politicians and policy-makers over European plans to introduce tougher privacy and data protection laws.

Facebook mobilised its staff for a huge lobbying campaign in Davos, holding private discussions with policy-makers over Europe’s plans to tighten data protection rules, according to the documents. Executives felt they faced an uphill battle to ensure Europe adopted a single data protection standard that was “not overly prescriptive”.

The disclosures come as Facebook faces privacy investigations in the US, following revelations by the Wall Street Journal last month that the company had harvested sensitive medical data from apps on users’ smartphones, including details about their blood pressure, weight and ovulation.  

Facebook was worried about the impact tighter privacy and data protection laws would have on its business as early as 2013, when executives tried to charm and influence European politicians and policy-makers at the WEF in Switzerland.

An internal memo reveals:

  • Facebook asked then chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, to step up his involvement in the debate on the European Data Protection Directive, and invited one of his children to visit Facebook’s office.
  • Many policy-makers at Davos told Facebook staff their 10-, 11- and 12-year-old children were begging for Facebook accounts, despite being under Facebook’s 13 years-plus age limit.
  • Facebook’s plans for Sheryl Sandberg to “bond” with Viviane Reding, the European commissioner responsible for Europe’s proposed privacy laws, during a dinner to promote women in company boards, backfired as Reding stuck to her guns about the need for regulation.
  • Facebook claimed to have successfully encouraged Irish prime minster Enda Kenny to use his influence during Ireland’s presidency of the European Union to influence the Data Protection Directive.

The memo forms part of a previously unpublished cache of documents seized when the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee dispatched Parliament’s serjeant-at-arms to arrest Ted Kramer.

Kramer, founder of Six4Three, which developed an app to search for pictures of female friends wearing bikinis or males wearing swimsuits, was forced to hand over hundreds of legal documents disclosed in his company’s lawsuit with Facebook, in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In October last year, Facebook was fined £500,000 by the UK information commissioner for breaches of pre-GDPR data protection law related to Cambridge Analytica – the maximum amount it could levy under the law at the time. Under the harsher punitive measures in GDPR, a similar breach now could cost the company more than $1bn.

Last week, Computer Weekly revealed that documents from the cache showed that Facebook planned to use its Android phone app to track the location of its customers and to permit advertisers to target political advertising at people it identified as being “single”.

Sandberg charms George Osborne

Facebook’s Sandberg used her trip to Davos in 2013 to charm Osborne, who, according to an internal memo marked “highly confidential”, was “very pleased” when Sandberg offered to work with him to launch an app-building course for children in 12 'under-served' schools in London.

For Facebook, Davos presented an important opportunity to make contacts with government ministers and policy-makers across the US, as it lobbied to ensure that the European Commission’s (EC) proposed Data Protection Directive did not damage the company’s business model.

When former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne revealed his 11-year-old was “desperate to have a Facebook account”, he was invited to bring them to visit the firm's office

The memo records Sandberg’s meeting with Osborne, as documented by Marne Levine, then Facebook’s vice-president of global public policy.

During a wide-ranging discussion, Osborne – now editor at the London Evening Standard – offered advice to Facebook about how it could gain visas more quickly to bring employees to London, and canvassed Sandberg on whether Facebook might be willing to make a substantial financial investment in Tech City, a cluster of high-tech companies and startups in East London. Sandberg said that such an investment was “not something that we do at this stage”.

Osborne said he had “really enjoyed” his visit to Austin, where Facebook has a major presence, and according to the memo, he revealed that his 11-year-old child was “desperate to have a Facebook account”.

“We told him that he should bring the 11-year-old to the office there. He would like to,” Levine reported.

Osborne told Computer Weekly that he doesn't remember either of his children - he has a son who was 11 at the time of the Davos meeting, and a younger daughter - being invited to visit Facebook, and that neither of them have ever done so.

Facebook took the opportunity to encourage Osborne to become “even more active and vocal in the European Data Directive debate, and to really shape the proposals”, the memo reveals.

“We praised the UK’s impact assessment [on the Data Protection Directive], which described the costs of the regulation and Osborne’s particular criticism that the impact assessment actually underestimated the costs,” Levine wrote. “He asked for a detailed briefing on the regulation and he will figure out how to get more involved.”

Osborne told The Observer that he did not lobby the EU as a result of the meeting with Facebook.

Levine also records that at the end of the Facebook executives’ meeting with Osborne, she brought up Sandberg’s influential book, Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead.

“The discussion was going well until he was basically giving himself a pat on the back for having a woman as his chief of staff. Sheryl and I looked at each other, and then Sheryl very nicely said, ‘I think what we should be focusing on is whether there has ever been a woman in your job (the principal role and not the supporting one), and if not, why not?’,” said Levine.

“This had an impact on him,” she said, and the chancellor offered to host a reception for Sandberg’s book at 10 Downing Street.

Facebook for children

Facebook has a minimum age limit of 13 for children to sign up to its services, but many of the policy-makers made the point that, like George Osborne, their 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds would like Facebook accounts.

Facebook executives floated the idea of setting up a Facebook service for children with Neelie Kroes, European commissioner for communications networks, content and technology.

The commissioner, who, according to the document “had a great relationship” and an “easy rapport” with the social media company, seemed open to the idea.

One of Kroes’ aides went further, saying that children playing together online was no different to children playing together in real life.

“If you ask people whether six-year-olds should be able to play together on the internet, they will say no. But no one objects to two six-year-olds playing together on a safe playground. That’s the kind of environment we need to replicate online,” he said.

Sandberg’s response was: “I love you.”

Plan for Sandberg to bond with Viviane Reding ‘backfired’

Facebook attempted to woo Viviane Reding, the European commissioner responsible for data protection, by inviting her to Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” dinner to promote more women in C-level jobs.

But Sandberg’s attempt to befriend Reding proved more difficult than Facebook’s lobbying team had planned.

“We met with her right afterwards. While she enjoyed the dinner, she felt it was a very ‘American’ discussion about women’s leadership issues. Getting more women into C-level jobs and on boards was supposed to be how they bonded, and it backfired a bit,” Levine reported.

Sandberg tried again later in the week when she spoke on the same panel as Reding and used the opportunity to raise the Data Protection Directive with Reding directly.

“Reding was concerned that our lobbying on the issue did not emphasise our support for the broad concepts and focused only on the areas of disagreement,” the memo records.

“We’ve made some progress, but generally we have a difficult relationship with her. This is not unique to us; she is not a fan of American companies,” said Levine.

“It was particularly striking how Reding kept making the point to us, and in sessions I attended with her, that this law will happen whether you like it or not, so get on board. And even when we would say, we are for it, she couldn’t really hear.”

Facebook has luck of the Irish

Facebook, which has made huge investments in Dublin and created thousands of jobs in the country, had more luck with the Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny.

Facebook claimed it had a “great relationship” with Kenny. Levine pointed out that 2013 would be particularly important because Ireland would hold the presidency of the European Union (EU) for the next six months and would be in a position to influence the European Data Directive revisions.

The social media company made it clear to Kenny that the directive in its current form was a threat to jobs, innovation and economic growth in Europe.

“We used the meeting to press them to make the EU Data Protection Directive a priority for their presidency. The prime minister said they could exercise significant influence as president of the EU, even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role,” the memo claims.

An investigation in 2017 by the Irish Independent revealed that Sandberg went on to meet with Kenny the following year at the World Economic Forum in 2014, and again at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, where she put Facebook’s case on European data protection regulations, tax and other matters.

Sandberg wrote to Kenny two days after the Davos 2014 meeting, warning him that changes in data protection or taxation laws might lead Facebook to consider “different options for future investment and growth in Europe”, documents released to the paper under the Freedom of Information Act revealed.

“I also want to commend you once again for your leadership during the presidency of the EU. You made enormous progress. When it came to the European data protection regulation, you and your staff really internalised our concerns and were able to present them in a reasonable way, which has a positive impact,” she wrote.

The Irish Independent’s documents showed that Sandberg was concerned to have the right person in place as data protection commissioner to replace Billy Hawkes, who was due to retire.

Hawkes had, helpfully to Facebook, refused to investigate claims by Austrian lawyer Max Schrems that the private data of European users of Facebook was being unlawfully intercepted by the US National Security Agency when it was transferred to the US.

Under GDPR, Ireland’s Office for the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC), which has gradually increased its budget from €1.9m in 2014 to €15.2m in 2019 with 135 staff, has sole responsibility among Europe’s 27 data protection regulators to oversee Facebook’s compliance with data protection law. This week, the DPC revealed it has opened 10 statutory inquiries into Facebook and other Facebook-owned platforms in the first seven months since GDPR came into force on 25 May 2018.

At Davos in 2013 Sandberg went on to raise the Data Protection Directive with France’s Fleur Pellerin, minister for small and medium enterprises, innovation, and the digital economy, who arranged a visit to Facebook’s headquarters in April that year.

“There is room to develop a strong relationship with Pellerin and Delphine Reyes, our new head of policy in France,” Levine noted.

EC competition minister offers early warnings

Next on the charm offensive list came Joaquin Almunia. In 2012, Facebook had previously briefed the European competition minister on tech rival Google. Now Facebook’s executives simply wanted to build on their relationship with him and address any competition concerns he may have.

Sandberg told Almunia that it was important to have an open dialogue with him on competition matters. There had been more noise about Facebook and anti-trust issues over the preceding year, she told him.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was among the top executives who met with politicians and policy-makers at the 2013 World Economic Forum as the social media company sought to influence European plans to tighten privacy and data protection rules

Almunia reassured her that there had been no formal or informal complaints about Facebook. The noise was just media speculation and nothing more. “There would always be media interest in anti-trust issues related to Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon simply because of the size and dominance of the companies,” he told her. 

Sandberg quoted a series of metrics to Almunia to demonstrate that Facebook was smaller than Apple, Google and Amazon, and went on to quiz Almunia about future competition issues that might affect Facebook.

Almunia disclosed that the European Commission was considering an investigation into Android, which leaked documents revealed last week is a key platform for Facebook to harvest phone users’ data – a disclosure that prompted Facebook to arrange further meetings with the commissioner in Brussels.

“Almunia said it would be useful to develop an ongoing, open relationship with Facebook so that we could exchange views on various evolving issues. He said his preference was to discuss issues before they become investigations,” Levine’s memo records.

Facebook execs gatecrash Canada’s party

Sandberg went on to seek assurances from Canada’s minister of industry, Christian Paradis, over embryonic plans by the company to build a datacentre in the country.

Facebook had been seeking a letter from the Canadian government offering assurances that it would not seek jurisdiction over non-Canadian data, if Facebook went ahead.

“Sheryl took a firm approach and outlined that a decision on the datacentre was imminent. She emphasised that if we could not get comfort from the Canadian government on the jurisdiction issue we had other options,” Levine wrote.

Paradis agreed to get the letter to Facebook by the end of the day.

In a candid postscript, Levine complains about the minister’s aide, who she claimed had made up a “completely fictitious account” of an earlier meeting with Levine and other Facebook executives “which made us look like real jerks”.

Together with her entourage, Levine was dispatched by car to a Canadian reception for finance trade and foreign affairs ministers “so that we could cut the awful staff person out of the way”.

Facebook’s team distracted the minister’s aide and other officials, allowing Levine to “touch base” with three government ministers and get their mobile phone numbers. “We were out of there in 20 minutes,” said Levine.

Social media can win an election

Facebook’s highly confidential memo revealed that in the UK, cross-party political think tank Demos was planning research into “how social media can win an election for you”, with the support of Facebook’s public policy team.

The disclosure may prove uncomfortable for Facebook in the wake of allegations that the Russian state has used social media to try to influence the outcome of elections in the US and the UK, and the UK Brexit vote.

Demos also ran an advertising campaign on Facebook targeting the extreme right-wing group, the English Defence League (EDL), with a survey about its political sentiments.

“The results gave interesting insights into this obscure group that will assist the content policy team in assessing their activity and content on Facebook,” said Levine. “Their next research projects include ‘hate speech on social media sites’.”

Facebook announced on 26 February 2019 that it had permanently banned Tommy Robinson, the far-right founder of the EDL, from Facebook and Instagram for repeatedly breaking its policies on hate speech.

Death is a price worth paying for third-world social media

In the US, Facebook was conducting an extensive lobbying campaign to influence privacy legislation, recording meetings with senators, law enforcement officials and others with political influence.

Levine met with a congressman whom she describes as “very smart, engaging and provocative” at an off-the-record discussion meeting at Davos.

“During the wrap-up, he was particularly provocative when he said that deaths related to controversial content protests may be the price we pay for bringing ‘third-world countries into the first world’,” she said, warning recipients not to repeat the comment as it was said under the Chatham House Rule.

In another lobbying exercise in summer 2012, executives at Facebook’s Washington DC office met with Steve Scalise, a member of the House of Representatives, for coffee, and later invited him on a tour of Facebook’s headquarters with a small group of Republican law-makers.

Scalise went on to give an “excellent speech” on internet freedom, recorded in the Facebook memo, warning his colleagues that privacy regulation in the US was a threat to freedom.

“As Congress is debating its own privacy legislation, we must keep internet freedom close to heart. That means always asking ‘What are we losing?’ with each new rule. That means always remembering that startups are staffed by entrepreneurs and engineers, not compliance officers and attorneys,” said Scalise.

“That means understanding that mom-and-pop operations are not just bricks-and-mortar but web-based nowadays. That means recognising the many strides that industry and non-profits have already made to protect user privacy,” he said.

“All of this means that I am highly sceptical that legislative and regulatory efforts to curb the collection and use of browsing activity can be accomplished without impeding user access to information on the web. I caution my colleagues in Congress.”

Levine noted: “I’d say the visits had their desired effect!”

Facebook did not immediately comment on the documents, but in an earlier statement a spokesperson said the leaked documents only told one part of the story and omitted important context.

“Like the other documents that were cherry-picked and released in violation of a court order last year, these by design tell one side of a story and omit important context. As we’ve said, these selective leaks came from a lawsuit where Six4Three, the creators of an app known as Pikinis, hoped to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users. These documents have been sealed by a Californian court so we’re not able to discuss them in detail.”

Additional research by Matthew Fowler.

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