Thursday 23 May 2019

Friends with benefits: Correspondence gives insight into Government's relationship with Facebook

Company addressed regret over 'breach of trust' caused by Cambridge Analytica scandal

Meet and greet: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Silicon Valley last November
Meet and greet: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Silicon Valley last November
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Facebook chiefs were so concerned about the Irish fall-out from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that they wrote to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's advisers asking if he watched Mark Zuckerberg's apology on television.

Correspondence between Mr Varadkar, his office and senior Facebook staff - seen by the Sunday Independent - shows the level of concern within the company about the major "breach of trust" and the targeting of users for political messaging.

It also highlights a warmth in the relationship between the Irish Government and the social media company.

\Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show Facebook contacted advisers close to the Taoiseach and asked them to bring company statements and interviews by its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to Mr Varadkar's attention. The correspondence also shows Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Varadkar were in direct contact in recent months about the Taoiseach visiting Silicon Valley.

The pair also discussed the use of a Facebook office in Dublin for the launch of the Government's paternity benefit scheme last year.

It comes after a week where the Government rowed back on plans to appoint a digital safety watchdog this year, drawing criticism from the opposition. The Digital Safety Commissioner (DSC) was to have the powers to compel social media firms to remove illegal content and promote online safety. Last week the Government launched a new Action Plan for Online Safety but it failed to commit to a timeline for appointing such a commissioner. Communications Minister Denis Naughten said "jurisdictional and other legal issues" needed to be addressed before a DSC could be appointed.

The social media company found itself at the centre of controversy in March when reports uncovered how the UK consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica was found to be using information from millions of individual Facebook users' profiles without their permission.

Users' information was profiled so they could be targeted with political messages.

Cambridge Analytica was noted for work it did on Donald Trump's US presidential campaign.

After news of the scandal broke, Mr Zuckerberg appeared on CNN on March 21 to apologise for the company's failings.

He also issued a lengthy statement on his Facebook page promising to address the issue. The company issued a statement on its website promising to do more to protect people's personal information.

The following day, Facebook's head of public policy in Ireland Niamh Sweeney wrote to the Taoiseach's private secretary Nick Reddy asking him to bring this information to Mr Varadkar's attention.

"I hope he will have seen some coverage of our CEO Mark Zuckerberg's interview on CNN last night where he stated that what happened was a major breach of trust and apologised for it," Ms Sweeney wrote.

"We are working hard to ensure that this doesn't happen again and to make sure any other possible breaches of a similar nature are fully investigated."

She included weblinks to the statements made by the company and its CEO.

Two weeks later, Ms Sweeney wrote directly to Mr Varadkar to brief him on the situation, and the fact that "44,687 people in Ireland... may have been affected".

"This represents 0.0516pc of the total number of people affected, but any number is too many," she wrote in an email.

She then outlined the steps being taken to address the issue and invited Mr Varadkar to provide feedback and make suggestions on what the company should be doing.

It is not the first time Mr Varadkar has had direct contact with Facebook chiefs.

Last November, Mark Zuckerberg contacted him directly thanking him for visiting the company's Silicon Valley campus.

"It was great meeting you," he wrote.

He expressed his excitement about the opening of a data centre in Clonee, Co Meath, and a research office in Cork by the Facebook-owned virtual reality company Oculus. Zuckerberg also referenced Mr Varadkar's use of Facebook's Dublin offices during his time as Social Protection Minister.

Mr Varadkar used the Facebook offices on Mother's Day 2017 to call on employers to provide better maternity packages. However, he stopped short of promising legislation to force employers to pay women full pay when they take maternity leave.

Zuckerberg was pleased to see Mr Varadkar used the occasion to praise the company's four months' paid paternity benefit.

"I was happy to hear that you chose our Dublin office to launch the Irish State paternity benefit program earlier this year. We are proud of our parental leave program and we appreciate the recognition," Zuckerberg wrote in an email last November. He then signed off the correspondence by writing: "I look forward to seeing you again."

A warmth in their relationship is evident in the Taoiseach's reply.

"I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet you all, and I greatly enjoyed our conversation," Mr Varadkar wrote about his trip to Silicon Valley towards the end of last year.

"Ireland is, and will remain, a leading global location for innovative companies like Facebook. We very much value the continued investment and contribution Facebook has made in Ireland and we look forward to continuing our relationship long into the future.

"Ireland's future is an island at the centre of the world and at the heart of the common European home."

He signed the letter by promising to support Facebook's growth in Ireland.

"I wish you every success in the future and look forward to an opportunity to meet again," he added.

Mr Varadkar's predecessor Enda Kenny was noted for his close working relationship with Facebook officials. Mr Kenny met the company's COO Sheryl Sandberg on numerous occasions and one of his final acts as Taoiseach was to pen a note thanking her for sending him a copy of her book.

She met Mr Varadkar twice at the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, last January.

Afterwards she emailed Mr Varadkar to wish him "safe travels home".

"It was wonderful to meet you in Davos," she wrote.

"We all continue to be grateful for the work your government does to make Ireland a great place for our European headquarters. We will continue to invest in Dublin and look forward to growing our office over the coming year."

Mr Varadkar's response four days later via an adviser suggested the pair should stay in touch.

"[It] was good to make your acquaintance and to meet with you at the Gates dinner and also more formally at the Congress Centre," he wrote.

"I found our conversation on [redacted] interesting. Let's stay in touch as matters evolve."

Sunday Independent

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