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15th Dec 2019

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EU wanted to use Facebook's lobby power in US

  • Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, met with EU commissioner Vera Jourova in January 2018 (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission wanted Facebook's help in convincing the White House and US lawmakers to fulfil the requirements of the EU-US data pact Privacy Shield, internal documents show.

Last year, on 23 January 2018, EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova had a meeting with the US tech giant's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

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  • IBM CEO Ginni Rometty (l) seen here in 2016 with Keith Krach. In January 2019, US president Trump named Krach to become ombudsperson for an EU-US data pact (Photo: Keith Krach)

One of the topics was Privacy Shield, an EU-US agreement signed under former US president Barack Obama, aimed at providing a legal framework in which European citizens could trust their personal data was handled with care by US tech firms.

Without such a framework, the processing of Europeans' data by companies like Facebook could be illegal.

At EUobserver's request, the commission released a briefing paper for Jourova, written in advance of the meeting.

"Invite Facebook to support the sustainability of the Privacy Shield framework, in particular by arguing in favour of a swift implementation of the commission's recommendations," was one of the objectives set for the meeting.

The paper also included talking points, otherwise known as a 'line to take'.

"My staff is in contact with the [US] department of commerce (which is in charge of the administration of the Shield) on this but it would be important that you also pass the message that this is important to show some movement and some progress following our recommendations," Jourova was due to say.

"As one of the major US tech companies, I count on you to support the sustainability of the Privacy Shield by arguing in favour of a swift implementation of our recommendations in your contacts with the US administration and with Congress," the advised line to take continued.

Several paragraphs have also been redacted.

Whether the commissioner actually made the request is not clear.

The commission made no record of what was actually said in the meeting. A commission spokesman asked to clarify did not respond.

Facebook did not reply to a request for comment.

The Privacy Shield is a 2016 agreement between the EU and US that sets rules on transferring personal data between the two sides of the Atlantic.

Its predecessor, Safe Harbour, was scrapped by the European Court of Justice, after revelations of US mass surveillance.

But the US is taking its time with implementing some of the Privacy Shield requirements, like installing a permanent ombudsperson that can settle complaints from European citizens about US companies.

Loose ends

The Jourova-Sandberg meeting took place three months after the commission published its first annual review of the data pact, in which it expressed general satisfaction, but asked for the loose ends to be tied up.

The EU requests, framed as "recommendations", included that the US should appoint a permanent ombudsperson "as soon as possible".

Another was that privacy protection for non-Americans should be increased in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows US spies to gather digital information about Europeans.

The meeting took place two months before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, which revealed that data from Facebook users had been misused by a British firm in attempts to rig the US election and the Brexit referendum.

In the same period, Jourova also met with other high-ranking tech company officials.

On 17 November 2017, she talked to Kent Walker, senior vice president and general counsel at Google.

The briefing paper for the Google meeting also reminded Jourova to invite her guest to argue "in favour of a swift implementation of the recommendations in the commission report with the US authorities".

Google also failed to reply to a request for a comment.

So did IBM, whose CEO Ginni Rometty met with Jourova a few weeks before she met Walker, and on whom Jourova was also advised to call on for support.

Whether any of the companies ended up lobbying in favour of the EU is unknown.

The question is how much leverage the tech executives actually still have in the White House.

While several of them were close to the Barack Obama administration, relations with his successor Donald Trump seem more strained.

Trump shock

"It was a shock to all of us, the results of the election," Google's Walker said in an internal video leaked to Breitbart, a right-wing news website.

Regardless, on 19 January 2019, Trump announced his intention of nominating Keith Krach as under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment - which includes the permanent post of Privacy Shield ombudsperson.

This does not close the discussion though.

The European Data Protection Board welcomed Trump's announcement, but also stressed that the ombudsperson was not "vested with sufficient powers to remedy non-compliance".

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US tests EU patience over Privacy Shield

The data sharing pact with the US is yet to be fully implemented, as the Americans have failed to appoint people in key positions to ensure EU citizens' personal data is protected.

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Cambridge Analytica scandal exposed "profound failure of governance within Facebook", British MPs said, while blaming Zuckerberg for his contempt for democratic scrutiny.

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A new report of the European Agency for Fundamental Rights calls for "a clear legal framework" to regulate facial recognition technologies, saying that collecting facial images of individuals without their consent can harm people's dignity.

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