How Facebook praises and pressures a country’s leader to get exactly what it wants

It comes with the territory.
It comes with the territory.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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The Irish Independent has published correspondence between Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Irish prime minister Enda Kenny, obtained through a freedom of information law request. Facebook’s European headquarters are in Dublin, Ireland.

The emails from 2014 reveal how Sandberg uses both praise and the prospect of Facebook changing its investment strategy in Europe to personally lobby the Irish leader. They provide a rare window into how one of the world’s most powerful technology companies conducts its business. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment from Quartz.

In one email, after a meeting between Sandberg and Kenny at the annual World Economic Forum conference in Davos in early 2014, the Facebook executive praises the Irish politician’s position on a set of sweeping, new, Europe-wide data privacy laws. ”You and your staff really internalized our concerns,” she writes. “And were able to present them in a reasonable way, which has had a positive impact.”

After that compliment, Sandberg turns to the matter of global tax law reform at the OECD, which Kenny was also involved in. Here, she raises the prospect of Facebook shifting its investment strategy in Europe. After noting that the tax discussions would be “very complicated,” Sandberg wrote: ”We hope to be helpful to you identifying the implications with different options for future investment and growth in Europe.”

That suggestion came as Facebook was in the process of expanding its Dublin office and headcount. Later in the year, in a letter inviting Kenny to open Facebook’s new, larger, building in Dublin, Sandberg takes the opportunity to press home a point about privacy and tax regulation in Europe. Facebook believes it is “important” to have a single European regulator, she wrote. The absence of a single regulator could again cause a change in investment strategy, she noted: ”Without this, the risk is that companies will revisit their investment strategies for the EU market.”

In the same letter, Sandberg outlines her opinions on a successor to the outgoing data protection commissioner at the time, Billy Hawkes. “Billy will be a hard act to follow,” she writes, before expressing her hope that his replacement will “establish a collaborative working relationship with companies like ours” and play a leadership role on data protection issues in Europe.

Did the lobbying work? Hawkes’ successor is Helen Dixon, who had to reopen an investigation into Facebook’s data transfers to the US after a landmark judgment from Europe’s highest court. But as the Irish Independent notes, Dixon is indeed Facebook’s main privacy regulator under “one stop shop” provisions in the EU’s new privacy laws that go into force next year—which Sandberg had pushed for in her letters to Kenny in 2014.