Facebook executive on privacy row: 'We'd be breaching Irish law'

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards says Facebook has breached New Zealand's Privacy Act.
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards says Facebook has breached New Zealand's Privacy Act. Photo credit: File

A Facebook executive says the company would be breaching the laws of Ireland by handing data about its New Zealand users to the Privacy Commission.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards said on Wednesday that the social media giant had refused to cooperate with an investigation from his office.

The case involved a New Zealand citizen, who was not a Facebook user, who suspected that some people were defaming him on Facebook and asked for access to their posts and private messages.

When Facebook refused to hand over the posts, the individual took the matter to the Privacy Commissioner on the grounds that Facebook was holding his private information.

In a statement, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner outlined various ways in which Facebook could have responded to the complaint under the Privacy Act, but said the company "failed to engage" with local laws.

In an open letter, Facebook Global Deputy Chief Privacy Officer Stephen Deadman said the company would be breaching Irish data protection law if it handed over the posts.

Because Facebook is incorporated in Ireland, he said, it is subject only to Irish laws and not the jurisdiction of individual countries.

"However, even if the New Zealand Privacy Act did apply to Facebook in this case, we firmly believe that Facebook would not be legally required to disclose the information requested, because it would violate the data protection rights of the New Zealand citizens concerned," Mr Deadman said.

However, he said that Facebook had "the highest respect for the Commissioner and the role he plays in protecting the interests of New Zealand citizens".

"The case in question is a difficult one," he said.

"The posts were private and the complainant did not know where or when this content had been shared."

The Privacy Commissioner asked Facebook to search through and disclose the contents of seven accounts for a year-long period, from August 2016 to August 2017.

This included those seven peoples' private messages, which Facebook needs a "lawful basis" to disclose.

He said the complainant in such a case would usually go to court and obtain an "order for discovery", which, if the court issued the order, would authorise Facebook to disclose the information.

The complainant chose not to do this, and instead asked the Privacy Commissioner to treat it "like a request for access to his own data", Mr Deadman said.

"This doesn't seem right to us, and we are concerned about the use of this process for this type of issue."

He ended the post by saying Facebook intends to work with authorities in New Zealand and Ireland to find a solution for the complainant.