Businessman Denis O’Brien has criticised Ireland’s relationship to Facebook, calling the social media giant a “coloniser” that uses its platform to “facilitate anarchy”.
Mr O’Brien, Ireland’s richest person and the founder, chairman and CEO of Digicel, said Ireland was “regrettably” a “pivotal partner” of the company due to its tax laws and was therefore “complicit with the egregious practices Facebook operates under”.
The remarks, which were delivered Thursday in a lecture at Cambridge University, were part of a wide-ranging address that touched on Ireland’s role in the developing world, reparations for slavery, and what Mr O’Brien called “philanthrocapitalism”.
Mr O’Brien was delivering the 5th Brian Lenihan Memorial Lecture, an annual series in honour of the late finance minister Brian Lenihan Jr, a Cambridge graduate, who died from cancer in 2011 at age 52 after serving in office with the disease.
Previous speakers have included former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and UCD economics lecturer Colm McCarthy.
Mr O’Brien’s speech included a scathing attack on Facebook and a blunt critique of Ireland’s financial relationship to the multibillion-dollar Silicon Valley firm.
He warned that the company was becoming too big to challenge over its use of personal data and its influence on politics. He said “a coalition of like-minded governments” need to regulate Facebook.
“Make no mistake about it, Facebook is as insidious as it is pernicious,” he said. “It is time for the Irish Government, the EU and the United States to take action.”
Mr O’Brien has criticised Facebook previously, including in a 2017 speech to a Global Symposium of (telecoms) Regulators in the Bahamas.
Digicel is a major digital services provider in the Caribbean, Central America and the South Pacific. Its telecoms business is in competition with WhatsApp, Facebook’s free personal messaging app.
In his latest speech and despite including Ireland in a potential coalition of Facebook antagonists, Mr O’Brien levelled a harsh rebuke at the Government here for its close relationship to the company.
“Ireland, regrettably, has allowed itself to become Facebook’s laundrette for the biggest tax avoidance scheme in the world,” he said.
“Obviously, I am proud of Ireland’s role in the developing world, but this is a blot on our reputation. Facebook continues its role in propagating hatred, racism and misinformation without any check.”
Mr O’Brien also outlined his views on “a market-based, capitalist for-profit approach to solving the world’s most important issues” along the lines of the Bill and Melinda Gates “Giving Pledge” or Chuck Feeney’s Atlantic Philanthropies.
Supporters say such philanthropy can address social and economic problems using the profit motive to generate funds for education, healthcare and disaster relief.
Opponents argue that corporate profits and billionaires’ wealth should be taxed at higher rates.