Facebook Inc. lobbied political leaders in Canada and abroad, seeking to trade investment for legislative favours and use Facebook training to build relationships with public officials, while often remaining in the background by lobbying through trade associations, outside consultants and informal meetings.
Details of the social-media giant’s lobbying efforts are contained in two memos written by Marne Levine, Facebook’s then-vice-president of global public policy in July, 2012, and January, 2013, and based on documents reported by digital magazine Computer Weekly, British newspaper The Observer and freelance investigative journalist Duncan Campbell.
The Globe and Mail has seen copies of the memos, which are among several documents sealed by a California court as part of a lawsuit involving Facebook. The documents were seized by a British parliamentary committee investigating the company.
Among the efforts to lobby Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, Ms. Levine wrote that Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg met with then-Industry Minister Christian Paradis during the World Economic Forum in 2013. She asked for a “letter of comfort” seeking assurances that Canada would not seek legal authority over data from non-Canadians that was stored on servers in Canada.
“Sheryl played a very mild bad cop; I played good cop,” Ms. Levine wrote. The negotiations were “down to one issue” about the letter when Ms. Sandberg told Mr. Paradis that Facebook had “other options” for where to build its data centre.
“The Canadians explained that they were now using political lawyers rather than the Industry Canada lawyers (to bypass the bureaucracy) and that this gave them more flexibility to agree to our suggested changes,” Ms. Levine wrote.
Mr. Paradis promised the company “would get the letter we needed by the end of the day,” she wrote. Ms. Levine said Facebook eventually got the letter it needed. Facebook ended up building the US$1-billion data centre in Iowa instead.
The memo goes on to describe Facebook employees’ efforts to distract members of Mr. Paradis’s staff during a Canadian government reception in Davos while Ms. Levine spoke with Canada’s ministers of trade, foreign affairs and finance and got their cellphone numbers.
None of the meetings appear in Canada’s federal lobbyist registry.
Mr. Paradis said he never gave any guarantees to Facebook, but declined to elaborate. “With regard to the article you mentioned, I confirm that I have neither promised nor delivered any guarantee whatsoever to Facebook,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Globe on Monday.
Former foreign affairs minister John Baird, who attended the Davos forum in 2013, said through a spokesperson that he did not remember meetings with Facebook over the data centre.
“He has met with Facebook in the past, but does not remember this encounter or topic so does not think it was of any consequence,” Michael Ceci, Mr. Baird’s chief of staff at Bennett Jones, the Calgary law firm where he is a senior business adviser, wrote in an e-mail.
In a statement over the weekend, Facebook denied that it threatened to withhold investments in Canada to put pressure on the government to offer the company legal assurances. It said the leaked documents had been “cherry-picked” and released in violation of a court order. “These by design tell one side of a story and omit important context.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus called Monday for an investigation into Facebook’s conduct over the data centre. Mr. Angus said that the absence of any records of meetings between Mr. Paradis’s office and Facebook were part of a “pattern" by Facebook to avoid disclosing its lobbying efforts.
“We are seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of surreptitious, unregistered high-level contacts with government going back years,” Mr. Angus wrote in a letter to federal lobbying commissioner Nancy Belanger.
Consultants hired by Facebook were registered to lobby on behalf of the company as early as December, 2011, when Erin O’Toole, now a Conservative MP, registered as a Facebook lobbyist with the now-defunct Bay Street law firm Heenan Blaikie.
The company only registered its own employees as lobbyists in May, 2018, when it listed Facebook Canada managing director Garrick Tiplady as a lobbyist. Mr. Tiplady joined Facebook in December, 2017.
The memos detail Facebook’s extensive efforts to avoid going through official lobbying channels as it sought to influence digital legislation across the world.
In one instance, Facebook developed its own proposed legislation and talking points for several U.S. states that were proposing to make it illegal for employers to request access to employees’ social-media accounts. But the company chose to allow others to campaign publicly.
“Because Facebook is the main focus of these bills, our allies in industry have agreed to lead the public effort opposing the bills while we will continue to work behind the scenes,” Ms. Levine wrote.
It also helped non-governmental agencies in Brazil write a letter supporting legislation governing internet use in the country and helped India’s then-president Pranab Mukherjee to create his own Facebook page, in hopes that politicians pushing for new laws governing ‘objectionable” content on social media would take note.
Ms. Levine also wrote that Facebook Live, which allowed politicians to livestream events on the platform, “gives us a way to build a relationship with policy makers and influencers, especially those who we might not encounter through our usual work.”
With reports from The Canadian Press.