Drawing on his considerable experience in such matters, Facebook’s Vice President for Global Affairs and Communications has fine-tuned his company’s position on data transfers.
Speaking on a panel concerned with European funding and regulation of the tech sector, Clegg (pictured) was challenged by the moderator over headlines suggesting Facebook would pull out of Europe if the Irish Data Protection Commission went ahead with its threat to stop data transfers to the US. Specifically he was asked if there was any truth to them.
“No, none at all,” said Clegg. “I suspect there’s some breathless headline writer who got carried away. I think what you’re referring to is a long-standing issue that has been going back for years about the legal provisions which govern the transfer of data between the EU and the US…” He then went on to recap the history of the matter, before attempting a spot if light deflection.
“This isn’t just about Facebook, it would be absolutely disastrous for the economy as a whole,” said Clegg. “In the most extreme case, if data transfers really were ended and there was no legal basis for those data transfers… a small tech startup in Germany would no longer be able to use a US cloud-based server.
“And so, what is at stake here is quite a big issue which, in the end, can only be resolved politically through negotiations between the US and the EU. That clearly is not going to happen until there’s a new US administration in place early next year. So we have taken legal action to try to send the signal that this is a pretty big issue for the whole of the European economy. We need the time and the space for the political process to work out.”
Clegg was once more asked whether Facebook planned to close any European accounts. “The reason we went to court is precisely because we want to continue to serve customers in Europe,” he said. If decision makers, in this case the Irish DPC, were to declare that we are not longer legally able to transfer data… then of course that would have a profound effect on not just our services but in how countless other companies operate. You can’t just switch off data transfers from one moment to the next because there is a lack of an agreement at the moment.”
Unfortunately for Clegg he is best known in the UK for going back in his signature policy pledge when leader of the junior partner in a coalition government. That experience seems to have served him well as one of the main spokespeople for a company that’s constantly in the news, but doesn’t necessarily have the most sophisticated PR operation.
To be fair, while the court filing in question said it didn’t see how Facebook could continue to operate in Europe if data transfer was unilaterally cut off, that didn’t strictly amount to an overt threat to pull out. Facebook is right to call out the lack of due process being shown by the Irish DPC and the highlight the broader importance of resolving this matter properly. But if it’s going to raise the stakes in its court filings, it can’t be surprised if the press get a bit breathless about it.