New Facebook Files Expose Biden Censorship-For-Spying Scheme
Internal emails reveal that fear among Facebook executives over losing White House support in EU privacy case was behind greater censorship
The Biden White House did not violate the First Amendment when it requested that Facebook censor information on Covid’s origin and vaccine side effects, say many policymakers, journalists, and legal experts. Rather, White House officials were simply expressing their free speech rights, and Facebook executives were free to ignore White House requests.
But newly released internal emails show that Facebook executives felt pressure to comply with White House demands in order to resolve a European Union ban on the social media company’s ability to transfer the data of European users to its servers in the United States.
In July 2021, after a White House official demanded that Facebook censor more information, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, asked his colleagues to comply. The reason? Because of “the bigger fish we have to fry with the Administration — data flows etc…”
By “data flows,” Clegg was referring to the EU’s demand that Facebook stop transferring European user data — which Facebook advertisers value for targeting customers — to the United States.
The dispute was no small matter. In May of this year, EU regulators fined Meta, Facebook’s parent company, a record $1.3 billion for breaking the EU’s privacy regulations. The regulator said that Meta had violated a 2020 ruling by the EU’s highest court.
The series of events suggests a quid pro quo. Facebook would bow to White House requests for censorship in exchange for its help with the European Union.
“This is a gross violation of the First Amendment,” Columbia Law School Professor Philip Hamburger told Public, “not only because it involves what the Supreme Court considers ‘coercion,’ but also because it’s equally unconstitutional for the government to seek censorship through contract or conspiracy. And that’s what happened here.”
The White House wasn’t the only entity demanding that Facebook censor. NGOs and journalists from NBC and the New York Times were also pressuring Facebook to censor more. In response, Facebook executives weighed the radical “blackholing” measure, which blocks links to external web sites without informing users.
But it’s clear from the newly released emails that Facebook executives felt the greatest pressure from the White House and that they feared the White House would hurt them in other ways.
Until now, critics of government demands for greater Facebook censorship have focused on the White House’s threat to revoke Facebook’s Section 230 status, which immunizes the company from many forms of liability.
But the new emails point to a form of government leverage over the platform that has been ignored until now: the EU demand on Facebook to stop data flows from the EU to the US, and the conditional willingness of the White House to push back against it.
A potential end of EU-to-US data flows is an even more urgent threat to Facebook’s business than White House threats to Section 230. About ten percent of Facebook’s total global advertising revenue, $1.2 billion, comes from selling ads in the EU.
While neither Congress nor the Biden Administration have shown much willingness to follow through on their threats to modify Section 230, the European Union has imposed fine after fine on Meta/Facebook. Last November, EU regulators fined Meta $291 million for a leak of its data. And in January of this year, they fined Meta $429 million for making users accept personalized ads in order to use Facebook.
All of which raises the question: why did EU leaders cut a deal with the Biden White House to allow Meta to move data to the United States? While it’s clear what Facebook and the White House got out of the secret quid pro quo, what did Europe get?