- Facebook has denied that it threatened to withdraw an investment in a data centre in Canada if it did not receive the legal reassurances it wanted. “This is not a threat,” the company told Business Insider.
- COO Sheryl Sandberg told the European Union and Canada that if they pursued legal measures the company disagreed with then Facebook would consider other “options” for investment and growth, according to sealed documents leaked from a lawsuit.
- Canada responded immediately to her request.
- It’s not clear what influence Facebook gained with the EU but the company was pleased with its relationship with former Ireland prime minister Enda Kenny during the period when Ireland held the presidency of the EU, the documents say.
Facebook has denied it threatened to pull investment projects from Europe and Canada if lobbying demands from COO Sheryl Sandberg were not met, the company told Business Insider.
According to court documents seen by Computer Weekly and The Guardian, Sandberg told government officials from the European Union and Canada that if she did not receive certain reassurances then Facebook would consider other “options” for investment and growth.
Canada gave her the written reassurance she sought the same day.
A spokesperson for Facebook, however, told Business Insider “this is not a threat.” The company was simply doing the necessary due diligence needed to protect its users’ data.
“Before we commit to opening a data centre anywhere in the world, we want to make sure we fully understand the country’s laws and privacy protections. This is not a threat to withhold investment, but part of our duty to protect people’s data,” an official said.
The documents were apparently filed under seal as part of a lawsuit in California between Facebook and an app developer, Six4Three. Confidential documents from the case have leaked online before, in an apparent attempt to embarrass Facebook.
Facebook told Business Insider it would not comment further. “Like the other documents that were cherry-picked and released in violation of a court order last year, these by design tell one side of a story and omit important context. As we’ve said, these selective leaks came from a lawsuit where Six4Three, the creators of an app known as Pikinis, hoped to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users. These documents have been sealed by a Californian court so we’re not able to discuss them in detail,” the company said.
“If we could not get comfort from the Canadian government on the jurisdiction issue we had other options”
In Canada, Facebook was planning to build a datacentre. But before completing it, Sandberg wanted Canada’s then minister of industry, Christian Paradis, to send a letter reassuring the company that the existence of the datacentre on Canadian soil would not be used by the country to extend its legal jurisdiction over non-Canadian data held by Facebook. (Paradis was a minister from 2011 to 2013.)
“Sheryl took a firm approach and outlined that a decision on the datacentre was imminent. She emphasised that if we could not get comfort from the Canadian government on the jurisdiction issue we had other options,” Marne Levine, then Facebook’s vice-president of global public policy, wrote, according to CW.
Paradis agreed to send the letter the same day, CW reported.
An ambush at a party
In the leaked messages, Levine also described how Facebook staff distracted aides to Paradis at a party so that other lobbyists could buttonhole ministers directly. One aide in particular “made us look like real jerks” to the Canadian government, Levine told colleagues, and she was determined to put that right. CW described the stunt like this:
Together with her entourage, Levine was dispatched by car to a Canadian reception for finance trade and foreign affairs ministers “so that we could cut the awful staff person out of the way”.
Facebook’s team distracted the minister’s aide and other officials, allowing Levine to “touch base” with three government ministers and get their mobile phone numbers. “We were out of there in 20 minutes,” said Levine.
Facebook believed it had a “great relationship” with Irish PM Enda Kenny
The next year, according to a separate Freedom of Information request described by CW, Sandberg wrote to Kenny after meeting him in Davos to suggest that changes in data protection or tax rules would prompt Facebook to look at “different options for future investment and growth in Europe.” The company believed the directive was “a threat to jobs, innovation and economic growth in Europe,” CW reported.
Although the EU did later pass GDPR laws tightening consumer privacy, the documents suggest that prior to that Facebook got its message through to Kenny: “We used the meeting to press them to make the EU Data Protection Directive a priority for their presidency. The prime minister said they could exercise significant influence as president of the EU, even though technically Ireland is supposed to remain neutral in this role,” the memo states.