Wednesday 22 May 2019

Lobbying was revealing - but did it pay off?

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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Is it a shock that Facebook lobbied the Irish Government on tax and data laws? No - all big companies do.

Are we surprised Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded favourably to such lobbying efforts?

Again, no. The German chancellor protects her country's car industry. The UK prime minister bats for London's financial services sector. So the Taoiseach may well give tech firms a hearing, especially when they're adding jobs in a recovering economy.

Nevertheless, correspondence between Mr Kenny and a senior Facebook executive, most likely chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, is revealing. What's clear is that the two big policy issues for Facebook are tax and data protection.

On tax, Facebook wanted the Government to keep its position "in mind" when engaging in international discussions on proposed tax-avoidance rules. The company also hinted that the outcomes of the tax law revisions could impact its investment strategy here.

"We hope to be helpful to you identifying the implications with different options for future investment and growth in Europe," a Facebook executive, likely Ms Sandberg, wrote to Mr Kenny in February 2014.

It's almost certain that other big multinationals based in Ireland regularly engage in such lobbying.

Nevertheless, we now know Facebook explicitly put it on the agenda in a follow-up (June 2014) meeting between Ms Sandberg and Mr Kenny.

The second issue, data protection law, is more revealing. The correspondence shows Facebook congratulating the Taoiseach for "internalising" Facebook policy on formation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) during Ireland's presidency of the EU. That particular law is probably the single most important piece of data privacy law ever introduced in Europe.

"You made enormous progress," the correspondence with the Taoiseach says. "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 had a positive impact on both the process and work product."

It's not clear how the Government advanced Facebook's specific requests.

However, it's apparent Facebook really wanted the principle of a single data regulator rather than a patchwork of them around the EU. It may not be a surprise that Facebook regarded the succession of Ireland's data protection commissioner as being one of interest to them.

The then commissioner, Billy Hawkes, had presided over an audit of the firm. By and large, his team gave Facebook a clean bill of health. This created some controversy at the time. Subsequently, a legal case on privacy against Facebook by Austrian student Max Schrems brought down a major transatlantic trade agreement (Safe Harbour).

Ultimately, the Irish Government may argue a close working relationship with big employers pays dividends. In the case of Facebook, it will point to 800 new jobs set for Dublin's north quays. Whether Ireland is any more pliable with big tech firms than Germany is with car companies or the UK is with banks remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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