Lobbying commissioner should investigate Facebook, says MP Angus

 
Lobbying commissioner should investigate Facebook, says MP Angus

NDP MP Charlie Angus is calling on Canada's lobbying commissioner to investigate social media giant Facebook after leaked internal company e-mails revealed the company met with Conservative cabinet ministers but didn't report those meetings to the lobbying commissioner's office.

In a letter sent to Commissioner of Lobbying Nancy Bélanger Monday, Angus urged her to look at the "larger pattern of avoidance employed by Facebook."

"My concern with Facebook ... is that we are seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of surreptitious, unregistered high-level contacts with government going back years and spanning two different governments of different partisan stripes," he wrote.

"I am even more concerned given the huge economic power of Facebook to have government policies bend to their policy preferences."

Manon Dion, spokeswoman for the lobbying commissioner's office, confirmed it has received the letter from Angus.

Angus's call for a probe comes after internal company e-mails, originally produced in connection with a U.S. lawsuit, were leaked to Computer Weekly and The Guardian/Observer in the U.K.

The documents — which CBC News has not been able to independently verify — describe how Facebook pressured the Conservative industry minister, Christian Paradis, to promise Facebook would not be subject to Canadian privacy laws if it set up a data centre in Canada. The documents reportedly say Facebook wanted a letter from Paradis assuring it that the government would not claim jurisdiction over non-Canadian data if Facebook built the proposed data centre.

In an e-mail to Radio Canada, Paradis said Monday that he didn't give Facebook what it wanted.

"I confirm to you never having promised or delivered any guarantee to Facebook."

The e-mails also detail how Marne Levine, then Facebook's vice-president of global public policy, complained that one of Paradis' aides was making the company's efforts to convince the minister more difficult. The e-mails said Levine headed to a Canadian reception for finance, trade and foreign affairs ministers "so that we could cut the awful staff person out of the way."

While Facebook's team distracted the aide, Levine was able to "touch base" with three cabinet ministers and get their cellphone numbers.

"We were out of there in 20 minutes," Levine wrote, according to the account in Computer Weekly.

Lobbying is legal in Canada but, under federal lobbying rules, companies that want to lobby Canadian politicians and public officials are supposed to first register with Canada's lobbying commissioner and report on the meetings that they hold, unless they fall under a handful of exceptions in the law.

However, the lobbying registry does not have any record of Facebook or people registered to lobby on its behalf meeting with any cabinet ministers during the time Paradis was industry minister, from May 2011 to July 2013.

Crestview Strategy and Erin O'Toole, who is now a Conservative MP, both reported meeting government officials on behalf of Facebook, but none of the meetings involved cabinet ministers.

In an interview with CBC News, Angus said the e-mails show a pattern of behaviour by Facebook executives.

"I think what's clear is that Facebook has a casual contempt for domestic laws wherever they operate. We really need to have a lobbying investigation into Facebook to see how they managed to skirt the lobbying rules in order to strong-arm government into getting their way."

Angus, who serves as vice-chairman of the House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee, said he will propose the committee study the e-mails and Facebook's actions.

"They need to respect our laws and they need to certainly start to come out into the open with the kind of backroom lobbying that they have been getting away with."

Dion said the commissioner's office has not seen the e-mails and can't confirm whether it has looked into Facebook in the past. She said under the law, the commissioner can investigate up to 10 years after something is alleged to have occurred.

Facebook has not yet responded to questions from CBC News about why its executives didn't report the company's contact with Conservative cabinet ministers.

Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien described the events outlined in the e-mails as "troubling" and took issue with Facebook's assertion that it had a duty to protect people's data.

"This shows disrespect for the rule of law. Facebook does not get to 'protect' its clients' data from the rules democratically adopted by Parliament," he said. "It is actually the reverse: companies like Facebook must obey democratically adopted rules designed to protect the privacy of individuals."

A "comfort letter" from Paradis would not have been binding on either the courts or his office, said Therrien.

The e-mails also demonstrate the need for the federal government to reform Canada's privacy laws, said Therrien.

"Under the current law, my office can only make recommendations; its decisions are not binding. Canada needs modern, rights-based privacy laws supported by an independent regulator with the authority to make binding orders, issue fines and conduct inspections — something our office has been calling for for some time but which successive governments have been slow to act upon."

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould's office said today the federal government "takes Canadians' privacy and data seriously and we expect that social media platforms use it in a responsible way."

"We expect platforms like Facebook to act responsibly and we will continue to hold them to account," spokeswoman Meg Jaques added.

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@rogers.com