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Facebook's love bombs as Denis takes soft approach

Tech giant continues its attempts to curry favour with the Government, writes Wayne O'Connor

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NEW CORRESPONDENCE: Denis Naughten with Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg at the tech giant’s headquarters in California a month after the minister lambasted the company over procedures

NEW CORRESPONDENCE: Denis Naughten with Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg at the tech giant’s headquarters in California a month after the minister lambasted the company over procedures

A meeting with key executives

A meeting with key executives

An email sent by Ms Sandberg thanking the minister for his visit

An email sent by Ms Sandberg thanking the minister for his visit

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NEW CORRESPONDENCE: Denis Naughten with Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg at the tech giant’s headquarters in California a month after the minister lambasted the company over procedures

Just weeks before he was forced to resign over his handling of the National Broadband Plan, former Communications Minister Denis Naughten told Facebook he was reassured by efforts to protect children on the platform, despite concerns young users faced mental health risks online.

Both Mr Naughten and Mental Health Minister Jim Daly had previously challenged the company to improve its validation process and provide better protections for vulnerable users.

Facebook conceded to Mr Daly that it was likely account users would be surprised by the amount of time they spent online. It said it was working to address mental health concerns.

But while Mr Daly challenged the company to make greater efforts to protect children online, his then-cabinet colleague was simultaneously taking a softer approach during his dealings with the tech giant.

New correspondence shows Facebook made efforts to establish a close working relationship with Mr Naughten.

Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg sent Mr Naughten a series of photographs of the pair together following his visit to Facebook's headquarters in California one month before he left Government.

The visit came after Mr Naughten lambasted the company at a meeting in New York last July.

At that meeting, Mr Naughten told senior Facebook officials from Ireland and the US he was "appalled" after a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary found the company's moderators were not removing graphic and abusive content from the platform.

The Roscommon TD had told the company he felt "embarrassed" after he "defended Facebook publicly on a number of occasions".

The new correspondence shows Mr Naughten softened his stance following a Silicon Valley meeting with Ms Sandberg in September. The emails came just days after Mental Health Minister Jim Daly blasted the company, saying it was not doing enough to ensure Facebook accounts were valid and genuine.

Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act show Mr Daly met three senior Facebook executives in the Department of Health on September 4 - Facebook head of public policy Niamh Sweeney, vice president of research David Ginsberg and research manager Lauren Scissors.

Meeting notes show Mr Daly "raised the issue of bogus accounts and the efforts Facebook are making to properly authenticate accounts".

The minister said it was too easy for children to lie about their age online and that tech giants were not doing enough to authenticate accounts linked to young people or vulnerable users.

He also expressed concern about the options available to users to report abuse received on the platform.

The Facebook executives told the minister they were committed to developing new tools to "promote appropriate use of the platform and promote good mental health".

They also outlined work currently under way that will lead to people being "surprised" by the amount of time they spend on its apps.

A meeting note seen by the Sunday Independent states: "They outlined academic research they are conducting around education, safety and addiction - and how Facebook is using that knowledge in product development. They hope to introduce tools built into the platform that will illustrate to users how much time they have spent on the Facebook or Instagram app by providing weekly reports to users.

"They expect many will be surprised by the amount of screen time they subscribe to. They said they do not intend to recommend specific screen times to individuals as appropriateness of this could vary greatly on individual circumstances."

One week later Mr Naughten met Ms Sandberg in Silicon Valley.

Prior to the meeting, he had also criticised the company and expressed concerns about age verification and children using social media. However, emails show he had a softer tone after meeting with Ms Sandberg.

The day after their meeting, she emailed him shortly before 8pm.

Ms Sandberg thanked him for visiting Facebook's Silicon Valley campus and his "valuable discussion".

Ms Sweeney was included in the email.

"I appreciated your direct and honest feedback and want to reassure you that nothing is more important to us than making sure Facebook is a safe environment for people," Ms Sandberg wrote.

"We're working hard to address the issues raised by the Dispatches programme - Niamh Sweeney and her team will continue to share our progress and are committed to maintaining an open dialogue.

"I look forward to meeting with you again in the future - hopefully in Dublin next time!"

She signed off: "My very best, Sheryl" and attached four photographs of the then-minister's trip.

Mr Naughten replied the following morning at 4.27am, thanking her for the message and "a very candid meeting".

He wrote: "Online safety, especially for children, is top priority for me. I was reassured at our meeting that Facebook is addressing this critical issue at the highest level and there is significant investment and work going on to ensure the platform is safe. I was also heartened to hear that your policies are kept under review and updated to reflect emerging challenges.

"I appreciate the transparency and willingness to engage that Facebook has shown on this. Let's continue to dialogue on these important issues."

One month later Mr Naughten was replaced in the Department of Communications by Richard Bruton following the National Broadband Plan fallout and meetings the Roscommon TD had with the lead bidder for the project.

Mr Bruton became acting Communications Minister on October 11 before assuming to the role and passing the Education portfolio he previously held over to Joe McHugh five days later.

Facebook has since attempted to maintain contact with the new Communications Minister.

On Monday, October 15, Ms Sweeney emailed Minister Bruton's private secretary reminding him of an invitation to attend the launch of a partnership between Facebook and the Anti-Bullying Centre at DCU the following Wednesday.

He had been invited as Education Minister and Mr Naughten as Communications Minister.

"I wanted to make sure that Minister Bruton is aware that our invitation... is still there," Ms Sweeney wrote.

Officials responded expressing regret that Mr Bruton was unable to attend and this was accepted by Facebook because "it's a very busy time".

Two weeks later, Ms Sweeney wrote to the minister's private secretary again to make him aware of an announcement the company was making aimed at addressing concerns about online child safety.

She asked who else on the minister's team she could forward future announcements to and included a background note on Facebook's new initiative.

It was to be brought to the minister's attention.

Sunday Independent