OTTAWA—Members of Parliament are voicing concerns about Facebook’s corporate behaviour after a British newspaper reported the social media giant tried to influence governments around the world — including Canada’s — by dangling the possibility of major investments.
The Observer newspaper published a story Saturday quoting internal Facebook documents that detailed the American company’s efforts to influence hundreds of politicians in a “secretive global lobbying operation” to ensure data privacy laws are favourable to the company. The reported documents referenced an internal Facebook memo that described how the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, pushed the Canadian government on an unspecified “jurisdiction issue” as Facebook was deciding where to build a new centre to house data servers.
The interaction occurred around April 2013, when the previous Conservative government was in power, Facebook confirmed Monday.
In response to the report, NDP MP Charlie Angus called on Canada’s lobbying commissioner to investigate the company’s conduct in this case, as well as long-standing concerns about Facebook’s “larger pattern” of avoiding transparency in its efforts to influence Ottawa. Angus has previously accused Facebook of failing to register meetings with Liberal government officials as official lobbying interactions.
“What you’re seeing is Facebook’s operating culture of complete disregard for domestic laws of the countries in which they operate,” Angus told the Star by phone Monday.
“I am not surprised by this at all. This is a company that around the world has exerted enormous backroom pressure on governments to get their way,” he said.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the Liberal MP for Beaches—East York, said the House of Commons privacy committee needs to “get to the bottom of this,” especially given the Observer reported that the Facebook memo said Ottawa acted to dispel Facebook’s concerns about housing its data centre in Canada.
The Star was not able to verify the documents reported by the British newspaper. However, Facebook confirmed the data centre in Canada was being considered around the same time the company decided to build one in Iowa in 2013. The Des Moines Register reported in 2017 that the data centre brought thousands of construction jobs to the area and created 200 full-time positions.
Christian Paradis, who was the Conservative industry minister when Facebook considered a data centre in Canada, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
“It’s outrageous on the one hand, but it’s unsurprising on the other,” said Erskine-Smith of Facebook’s alleged pressure on the Canadian government.
“If the allegations are true, then this is an unacceptable level of deference to the Facebook corporation.”
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains’s office said in a statement that the Liberal government can’t speak for their Conservative predecessors, but that “we can say unequivocally” that privacy laws in Canada apply equally to all companies collecting personal data for commercial purposes.
Facebook Canada spokesperson Erin Taylor said in a statement Monday that the company always tries to understand a country’s laws and privacy protections before opening a data centre. “This is not a threat to withhold investment, but part of our duty to protect people’s data,” Taylor said, adding that the documents reported by the Observer were “cherry-picked and released in violation of a court order” and “omit important context.”
“These documents have been sealed by a Californian court so we’re not able to discuss them in detail,” Taylor said.
The questions about Facebook’s conduct come as pressure has mounted on the Liberal government over the past year to address the influence of internet companies. Concerns about privacy protections were raised in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it was revealed that the British firm used Facebook to mine personal data from users to predict their political leanings.
Others have raised red flags about the integrity of elections and fairness in Canada’s cultural sector, where companies like Netflix sell subscriptions but aren’t subject to sales tax applied to similar services from Canadian providers.
Internet giants have also investing hundreds of millions in Canada — including $500 million from Netflix for Canadian productions, the creation of 3,000 jobs by Amazon in British Columbia, and Google’s $50-million Sidewalk City proposal in Toronto.
Angus, the NDP MP, said such investments show these online giants have massive economic clout on top of their influence as avenues of communication in the 21st century.
“I think what we’re seeing around the world is a growing frustration of legislators,” towards Facebook, Angus said, calling for stronger regulations of the company and other social media giants.
“They need to be really held to a much higher standard.”
With files from Alex Boutilier
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga