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Facebook whistleblower says Ireland has a ‘conflict of interest’ when it comes to regulating Big Tech


Frances Haugen at WebSummit in Lisbon, Portugal, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Frances Haugen at WebSummit in Lisbon, Portugal, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Frances Haugen at WebSummit in Lisbon, Portugal, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen says Ireland faces a “conflict of interest” when regulating Big Tech firms because of the benefits they bring to the country in terms of jobs and investment.

Speaking to a European Parliament committee in Brussels on Monday evening, she advocated for a central EU data protection authority to help take away what she said was the “unfair pressure” on Ireland to hold social media firms to account.

EU rules say tech firms should be regulated where they have their European headquarters, but many EU countries - including Germany, France and Italy - have criticised what they see as the slow pace of complaint handling and a lack of willingness to hand out fines in Ireland.

“I think there’s a real, real need for there to be some kind of centralised authority in Europe,” Ms Haugen told a special hearing of the parliament’s internal market committee.

“I think there is also that conflict of interest factor, that Ireland benefits a lot from having those tech companies there, and I think it puts them under unfair pressure to have to hold those things in tension.

“Because I’m sure Ireland cares about the safety of our children. Ireland cares about our democracies being threatened. But they also have extreme pressures being exerted against them which shows the need for a central oversight.”

The EU is currently negotiating a major overhaul of how it regulates tech firms – known as the Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts - including the possibility for the European Commission to step in and directly supervise the largest firms.

Ms Haugen was responding to a question from Italian MEP Marco Campomenosi, a member of the right-wing Lega party, who said Ireland’s data protection commission (DPC) “cannot give an answer” to 99pc of the complaints made against tech firms.

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"For fiscal reasons, the major platforms are all based in Ireland, and the Irish authorities cannot give an answer to all the procedures started,” he told the committee. “Ninety-nine per cent of the appeals are not prosecuted and the EU member states’ national authorities have to find back doors in order to solve this question.”

He mentioned a case in which the Italian data privacy watchdog ordered video app TikTok to block the accounts of underage users following the death of a 10-year-old girl.

The Irish Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, has repeatedly rejected criticisms of Ireland’s approach, and has asked for more resources to deal with her workload.

The Government said last month it would consider appointing more data protection commissioners.

Last week European Commission justice chief and vice president Vera Jourova said the Data Protection Commission is “understaffed and needs more capacity” to enforce EU data privacy rules.

Earlier this year MEPs said Ireland should be punished for not taking Facebook to task on data protection following a case brought by Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems.

Ms Haugen leaked a trove of internal Facebook documents that she says show the company prioritises growth over user safety. Facebook has denied the allegations, and has since rebranded to ‘Meta’.