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‘This is a very unhealthy relationship’: As Ottawa mulled regulations for tech giants, Facebook tried to recruit public servants


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‘This is a very unhealthy relationship’: As Ottawa mulled regulations for tech giants, Facebook tried to recruit public servants

OTTAWA—As the Canadian government mulled regulations for internet and tech giants, Facebook sought to recruit from within the federal public service for a high-paying policy job.

Facebook Canada’s Kevin Chan emailed a senior official at Canadian Heritage in February to ask if there were “promising senior analysts” within the public service that might want to work for the social media behemoth.

“I promise the most challenging and fascinating experience, and the base pay is about EX3,” Chan wrote, referring to an executive-level public service position with a salary between $140,900 and $165,700.

“Are there any promising senior analysts or EX1s in the public service you can think of that might be a good fit?”

Just two months earlier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasked the department with co-leading the federal government’s approach to regulating internet giants and protecting Canadians’ digital rights.

The federal Liberals have been promising regulations for social media and internet giants for years, as companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have replaced or revolutionized how Canadians get information, connect with each other, and spend money. The government is expected to unveil legislation in the coming weeks that addresses the massive role these companies play in Canadians’ day-to-day lives.

In response to Chan’s email, Owen Ripley, the director general of Heritage Canada’s Broadcasting, Copyright and Creative Marketplace division, replied that he had already seen the posting on Chan’s LinkedIn account and would be “happy to circulate to a few people who might be good candidates.”

The NDP, who obtained the email chain through access to information laws, said the documents suggest a troubling closeness between Facebook and the department responsible for regulating them.

“I think if a large oil company was calling into the environment minister’s office and saying ‘Hey, we want to hire some staff,’ that would certainly make people say this is a very unhealthy relationship,” said Charlie Angus, the New Democrats’ critic on ethics files, in an interview Wednesday.

While there are rules around public servants avoiding conflict of interests after they leave government, they aren’t subject to the same post-employment restrictions as politicians or political staff. And there is no indication that Facebook Canada was seeking public servants with knowledge of the government’s intentions on regulating social media companies.

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Megan Sinclair, a spokesperson for the company, told the Star it was “standard practice” for Facebook to seek out policy analysts with government experience.

“It’s false to suggest that our recruitment efforts focus on any one department or organization,” Sinclair wrote in a statement. “We look across the public, private and civil society sectors to recruit the best and brightest minds in public policy.”

Chan and Facebook Canada declined to speak with the Star for an on-the-record interview.

“(This is a) a company that refuses to pay taxes in Canada, that took our privacy commissioner to court, that refuses to meet basic standards in terms of accountability to the Canadian public,” Angus said.

Ahead of the 2019 election, the Liberals laid out a “charter” for Canadians digital rights — putting down the broad strokes of a plan to give Canadians control over their own data and creating actual consequences for companies’ abusing their digital might.

In the lead-up to that election, the Liberals proposed a new tax on tech and internet giants that sell online advertising in Canada, which they hoped would bring in $2.5 billion over four years. The government promised to bring in new legislation on regulating those companies by the end of the year.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who has been tapped to help lead those efforts, declined an interview request Wednesday. In a statement, his office said he remained committed to a “comprehensive and fairer digital regulatory framework in Canada.”

“It is about fairness: those who benefit from the Canadian ecosystem must also contribute to it, whether they operate in the broadcasting sector or are involved in news content sharing,” Guilbeault’s office wrote in a statement.

“This means ensuring that our online environment does not unduly disadvantage Canadian news publishers and allowing them to continue to do their essential work which is to empower and inform our communities, in times of crisis and beyond, for the benefit of our democracy.”

The Toronto Star, along with other news outlets and industry analysts, have called on the government to address internet giants’ advantage in online advertising and content distribution.

Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @alexboutilier

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