Facebook chief lobbied Enda Kenny on data protection appointment

Sheryl Sandberg used her privileged access to Taoiseach over 11-month period in 2014

Facebook chief lobbied Enda Kenny on data protection appointment

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, during a press conference in Berlin, Germany, January 2016. Picture by: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images

One of Facebook's top executives personally lobbied Taoiseach Enda Kenny on who should be appointed as Ireland's next Data Protection Commissioner, the Irish Independent has revealed.

Chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg discussed the matter with Kenny in one-on-one meetings and correspondence in the run-up to former commissioner Billy Hawkes' retirement in 2014.

The newspaper discovered through documents released under the Freedom of Information Act that Sandberg was given "extraordinary access" to the Taoiseach over an 11-month period at meetings in Davos and California.

The documentation shows that, while she didn't name any specific preferences in terms of people, she hoped whoever was appointed would be a "strong candidate", capable of collaborating with Facebook and provide leadership on the issue of data protection in Europe.

Sandberg lobbied Kenny on two issues of critical interest to Facebook: data protection and taxation. The latter issue involved Facebook battling the IRS in the US over whether its Irish operations presented a possible $5 billion tax liability.

With regards to data protection, she referred to Billy Hawkes as a "hard act to follow" – the newspaper points out that Fawkes, on what he believed to be valid legal grounds, refused to investigate claims that Facebook Ireland had colluded in transferring the private data of millions of EU citizens to the US, where it was allegedly accessed by the National Security Agency (NSA) in that country.

At the time of the lobbying, these grounds were being appealed to the Irish High Court, with the EU's Court of Justice about to be asked to rule on the matter.

Two days after a meeting between Kenny and Sandberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Sandberg wrote to the Taoiseach to warn how changes to taxation and privacy laws might lead Facebook to consider "different options for future investment and growth in Europe".

The email, seen by the Irish Independent, read:

"I also want to commend you once again for your leadership during your Presidency of the EU. You made enormous progress. When it came to the European Data Protection Regulation, you and your staff really internalised our concerns and were able to present them in a reasonable way, which has had a positive impact ...

"We hope we can rely on you for your continued leadership on this regulation since we still have more work to do here.

"Along the same lines, I was pleased to hear that you are so involved in the OECD working group process on tax reform. These discussions will be very complicated and important, and we hope to be helpful to you identifying the implications with different options for future investment and growth in Europe. We are keen to collaborate with your office on this, just as we have on the DPR.”

The European Court of Justice declared 'Safe Harbour' provisions to be invalid in October 2015, prompting current Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon to investigate spying claims against Facebook Ireland. 

Dixon took a case asking the Irish High Court to refer the question of whether clauses used by Facebook and others to transfer data from the EU to the US are valid to the EU's Court of Justice. Judgment was reserved in the Irish High Court in March 2017. A decision is still pending.