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What the NDP’s ethics critic is not liking about Facebook’s role in Ottawa

At the House of Commons ethics committee and in an interview with Maclean’s, Charlie Angus questioned Facebook’s political ties in Ottawa and lack of lobbying registration
Facebook Canada’s Kevin Chan listens as federal Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould speaks at an Economic Club of Canada event on Oct. 19, 2017 in Ottawa. (Alex Tétreault/National Observer)

The NDP’s ethics critic Charlie Angus says that Facebook “seems to think that the domestic laws in various jurisdictions are somehow quaint” and don’t apply to it.

Angus was speaking after a meeting of the House of Commons ethics committee on the morning of Apr. 19, at which Facebook’s head of public policy for Canada Kevin Chan and deputy chief privacy officer Rob Sherman testified.

The parliamentary body is conducting hearings into the accessing of Facebook data by Cambridge Analytica, which reportedly employed the personal information of the social network’s users to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Angus expressed concern that unlike other giant technology companies, neither Chan nor any other employee of Facebook is registered as an in-house lobbyist in Canada.

In a March interview on Facebook’s government relations activities in Canada, Chan said the company has never exceeded, nor come close to, the threshold at which registration with the Lobbying Commissioner is required under Canada’s Lobbying Act.

RELATED: Facebook can claim its very busy man in Ottawa is not a lobbyist. Here’s how.

Chan repeated the line in response to an inquiry from Angus at the ethics committee on Thursday. “This question does go to the heart of the company’s integrity, and quite frankly, my integrity personally,” he said. “So I appreciate the opportunity to address this head on.”

There is no indication that Facebook has broken any rules or laws with regard to its government relations activity.

The registration threshold—20 per cent of a single person’s time or duties, or the equivalent across all a company’s employees—is “one of the largest loopholes” in the lobbying rules, Angus said.

Chan was previously an advisor to then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, and prior to that a civil servant working in the top office of the bureaucracy. Someone with that history “doesn’t need to meet the [threshold] to have major influence with a cabinet minister,” Angus said. “He simply can phone him.”

In his March interview, Chan said he has had no formal involvement with the party since leaving Ignatieff’s office in 2011.

Generally, Angus said, corporations that “hire very strong political insiders as lobbyists register anyway, just out of prudence.” But “Facebook seems to think that … they don’t have to follow the spirit of the Lobbying Act, [that] they will be bound only by the letter of it.”

The Toronto Star reported earlier this week that Facebook had offered a “courtesy pre-brief” to MPs on the committee with public policy associate Jessica Smith, to take place individually in private prior to the hearing.

In an interview after the hearing, Angus said the two fellow committee members he spoke to about the offer—one Conservative and one Liberal—felt that it was inappropriate.

It’s normal for companies to meet with MPs to express concerns and provide information, and they may later be called to testify at committee and want to follow up after, he said. But a pre-hearing briefing could have given Facebook’s representatives inappropriate knowledge of MP’s planned lines of inquiries, and allowed the company to develop better relationships, “which might take the sting out of questions.”

Chan said at the Ottawa hearing that Facebook had recently conducted a number of such sessions with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., in the lead up to CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to U.S. Congressional committees to update them on various announcements the company had made. That was the context of the offer to members of the ethics committee, Chan said, adding, “I regret that our intentions may have been unclear.”

The office of the democratic institutions minister disclosed that acting minister Scott Brison spoke to Chan in March in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations to “receive assurances” that the company would provide information regarding the impact on Canadian users. The contact was initiated by the government.

Jake Enwright, spokesperson for opposition and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, said that Scheer’s chief of staff David McArthur and two other staffers had met with Chan and Smith in late March. The company had requested a meeting prior to the Cambridge Analytica story breaking, but it took place after, and Facebook’s representatives “did update us on the issue from their perspective,” among other topics, Enwright said.

The Lobbying Act only covers contact in which a company is communicating about creating or changing policy, regulations or legislations. Testimony at committee hearings and participation in public consultations does not typically count as lobbying. Meeting with ministers at company-hosted events or elsewhere may also not be Act-regulated activity.

Since Facebook’s employees are not registered, the company does not file monthly reports detailing pre-arranged communication with government officials, unlike those that have filed like Google.

At the ethics committee on Thursday, Angus listed a number of contacts between Chan and cabinet ministers, including finance minister Bill Morneau. In that instance, Chan responded, the minister’s office had requested assistance with the Facebook Live video streaming tool in preparation for the budget speech. Angus pointed to Chan’s title, suggesting it was waste of his time to help ministers get more ‘likes.’ “That is what I spend my time doing,” Chan responded.

Morneau spokesperson Dan Lauzon previously told Maclean’s that the minister’s office had met with Chan “on digital strategy and best practices, but policy is not part of the conversation.”

Enwright said the opposition leader’s office reaches out to Facebook when it or caucus members have technical trouble on the platform. And the company sometimes contacts the office to provide information about new features or programs. “That’s a pretty regular, routine thing that I suspect all parties engage with Facebook on,” he said.

Chan reached out to the NDP over the launch of Facebook’s “View Ads” in November 2017 and sought feedback after, said James Smith, press secretary for party leader Jagmeet Singh. In February this year, he made contact over cybersecurity training, “but no meeting transpired,” Smith said.

The mandate of Facebook’s public policy team as identified by Chan in his March interview includes helping its stakeholders—government officials, but also non-profits, academics, media and others—improve their use of the platform, to “be better with their pages and their engagement.”

Post-hearing, Angus repeated his point. “Are we really to believe that he’s going into the offices of the senior members of the Trudeau cabinet just to show them cool features on Facebook?” asks Angus. “This is about building a relationship so that Facebook can be very close to the political structure in Canada.”

Facebook “is very much against regulation,” said Angus. At the hearing, he referenced a story in the Guardian that the company had recently transferred responsibility of 1.5 billion users from its Irish unit to its U.S. one to avoid stricter European privacy rules. Chan said he had no knowledge of the change, later saying that Zuckerberg has made clear the company doesn’t oppose regulation, but “we want the right kind.”

The company has also engaged with the civil service in events focused on the use of online tools, not policy. As reported by the Hill Times, the company conducted a workshop in February 2017 on making better use of data. Officials from the departments of innovation, science and economic development, Indigenous and norther affairs, global affairs and the public health agency were in attendance. Matthew Mendelsohn, a deputy secretary in the Privy Council Office—the bureaucratic wing of the Prime Minister’s office—delivered an address at the event, as did Chan.

In January 2018, Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott participated in #HopeForum, an event co-hosted by Facebook and WeMatter, an online support campaign for Indigenous youth. In his March interview, Chan identified suicide prevention as an issue that the company has been engaged with for over a decade.

It is Facebook’s practice to engage and solicit feedback to improves its products, Chan said—at the forum, Indigenous youth identified challenges they faced “not just a societal level but also online.”

Chan has been personally engaged with these issues for even longer. In 2004, he co-created DreamCatcher Mentoring, a program launched in 2004 which matched high schools students in the north with mentors working in their areas of interest online. He was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for that initiative in 2017.

Chan has also been an active participant in policy-focused events put on by other groups and organizations. In November 2017, he could be found in a conversation on “inclusive political participation” with Dave Sommer, the PMO’s deputy director for digital, at the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Global Conference of Young Parliamentarians in Ottawa. In August the previous year, he participated in a roundtable on the subject of innovation hosted by a centre at Memorial University in Newfoundland. The event included local entrepreneurs, as well as MPs Nick Whalen and Seamus O’Regan, now veterans affairs minister.

The House ethics committee is set to launch its regular statutory review of the Lobbying Act imminently. Angus said he’s hoping “this government will close the [20 per cent threshold] loophole.”

But Facebook’s lack of registration reflects that broader question about the company’s attitude. “It falls upon Facebook to be the good corporate citizen here,” he said.

This article was updated to reflect NDP ethics critic Charlies Angus’s comments on regulation of Facebook in an interview and at committee.