Facebook lobbied against Australian privacy regulations, flying in the face of Mark Zuckerberg's PR push

Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesFacebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • A leaked email exchange between Facebook employees reported by the ABC suggests the company sought to oppose privacy regulations being considered by the Australian government in 2012.
  • The emails suggest former US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich offered to lobby on Facebook’s behalf.
  • The documents preceded the release of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s so-called “privacy-focused vision” for the future.

Facebook has been trying hard to calm the world’s nerves about privacy concerns, with founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg even penning a wordy statement outlining his “privacy-focused vision”.

But a report published by the ABC has thrown cold water over the social giant’s public relations campaign on privacy, alleging that Facebook officials in Australia took steps to lobby against plans of the then-Labor federal government to expand privacy protections.

The report brings to light leaked internal emails published on GitHub, a Microsoft-owned software development platform, which suggest that in 2012 local Facebook employees met with former US Ambassador to Australian Jeffrey Bleich to raise concerns with Australia’s approach to privacy regulation.

The documents, which are marked “highly confidential” and have been seen by Business Insider Australia, also suggest Bleich was critical of the Australian government and offered to amplify Facebook’s concerns with relevant policymakers.

“We raised the issue of the Australian government trying to extend their jurisdiction and directly regulate Facebook through new privacy regulation,” the document states.

“The ambassador said that this was another example of the Australian Government failing to understand the needs of technology companies and the importance of innovation. He has been actively working on cloud issues and established relationships with key players in both the bureaucracy and political arenas. The ambassador offered to raise concerns with his contacts regarding the proposed legislation.”

In a statement to the ABC, Bleich — who was appointed to the diplomatic post by President Barack Obama and is now a teaching fellow at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney — denied that the conversation took place as described in the leaked email exchange.

“I’m fairly sure that I never discussed whatever pending legislation is referenced here with the Australian government,” the statement said. “My only interest in any US commercial entities was to ensure that US businesses were treated fairly, and to advance US economic interests around the globe.”

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider Australia that the company does meet with government officials but claimed that the email exchange published on GitHub has been taken out of context.

“Like the other documents that were cherry picked and released in violation of a court order last year, these documents by design tell one side of a story and omit important context,” the statement said. “These documents have been sealed by a Californian court so we’re not able to discuss them in detail.”

The statement said Facebook remains committed to the vision outlined by Zuckerberg on privacy.

“We support economy-wide regulation to strengthen privacy protection for consumers across all industries if a review of Australia’s existing laws finds that they are not fit-for-purpose in our increasingly digitised economy and society,” it said. “These are complex issues to get right and we look forward to working with world leaders, Governments and industry on a clear framework of rules to help achieve this.”

The revelation comes as global governments consider efforts to further regulate Facebook in the wake of privacy concerns and failure to police dangerous content. US Democratic presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren and others have welcomed calls for Facebook to be broken up.

UPDATED 23/5/2019 12:52pm AEST: This article was updated to include a statement issued by Facebook to Business Insider Australia.

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