Ottawa wanted a ‘large share’ of Facebook’s 2018 safety and security hiring spree, documents show

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November 2017.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November 2017. Justin Trudeau/Twitter

The federal government wanted Facebook to make a significant number of its 10,000 planned safety and security hires in 2018 in Canada, The Logic has learned.

The new workers included engineers to build tools to identify inauthentic accounts and attempts to sway elections with fake news; moderators to review and remove violent and terrorist content; and subject-area experts on child safety and hate speech. Facebook confirmed it has since hired the workers, but wouldn’t specify their location. 

The recruitment drive came amid threats of regulation after a series of high-profile incidents of social media platforms being used to spread disinformation and extremist messages—and as the Canadian government called for Facebook and other tech companies to do more to address those issues.

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Talking Point

The federal government saw Facebook’s commitment to hire 10,000 new people to work on safety and security as an opportunity to attract jobs to Canada, documents obtained by The Logic show. Memos prepared before meetings between top federal officials—including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—and senior company executives said the country’s cybersecurity talent made it an “ideal place” for the recruitment drive. 

Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch made the hiring pledge during an October 2017 appearance before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearings on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. 

The following month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting in Vietnam. A scenario note prepared prior to the conversation and obtained via an access-to-information request suggested government officials “discuss Facebook’s plans to add 10,000 new employees in 2018 to work on ‘safety and security.’”

The memo notes that the work involves “combatting the distribution of undesirable content,” and “significant effort to identify threats as well as the measures to eliminate these threats.” And, it suggests the hiring spree presented an opportunity to create jobs in Canada: “The volume and variety of data and issues demands a wide array of skills (cyber security, cultural sensitivities, and creativity) which Canadians can be uniquely capable of performing.”

The document also talks up the clusters of cybersecurity firms and talent in Toronto, Ottawa and Fredericton, which it says “would be well placed to work more closely with Facebook on cybersecurity issues.”

The Prime Minister’s Office did not address questions from The Logic about Trudeau’s meeting with Sandberg, including whether he asked Facebook to hire safety and security staff in Canada, or what incentives he offered the company to make further investments in the country. “The Prime Minister engages regularly with business leaders from around the world,” said Chantal Gagnon, senior press secretary, in a statement. “The Prime Minister will always work to attract investment to Canada, grow our economy and create good jobs for Canadians.”

The Facebook hiring commitment also featured heavily in documents prepared by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) for a second conversation between the company and federal officials, two weeks after the Trudeau-Sandberg meeting. 

A memo setting up a conversation between Gianluca Cairo, then-incoming chief of staff to Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, and Jordan Banks, then-managing director of Facebook Canada, lists a “potential investment in Canada” as the priority item for discussion. 

Referencing the 10,000 new hires commitment, it suggests Cairo ask Banks what Facebook would require “to have a large share of this work completed within Canada.” Like the other memo, the ISED document recommends Cairo cite cybersecurity talent in Ontario and New Brunswick, and the country’s culturally diverse workforce. Those factors make Canada “an ideal place for Facebook to pursue your objective to enhance the safety and security of your platform,” it states.

“As part of a number of meetings that took place with Minister Bains’ new chief of staff, the meeting in question was a short, introductory phone call,” said Dani Keenan, Bains’s press secretary, in a statement. 

Ottawa’s public message on social media platforms has changed significantly since those November 2017 meetings. The note prepared for Trudeau’s meeting suggested he tell Sandberg it “is clear that Facebook is working to ensure its platform is safe and secure.” But the Toronto Star reported that, in person, he said the company wasn’t doing enough to prevent fake news from spreading on its site, and warned that his government would impose regulations if it did not act.

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, meanwhile, has spent the past 18 months calling on social media companies to act to prevent bots from distorting the conversation and malicious actors from spreading disinformation on their platforms, and promising to step in if they don’t.

Gould first raised the possibility of regulating online platforms in February 2018. The following month, news broke of Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data to try and influence the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and Brexit referendum. Canadian policymakers and regulators subsequently launched investigations into how social media companies handle hate speech, disinformation and user information; Gould has repeated her message that the platforms need to do more to protect the democratic process.

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In May, Bains announced a new digital charter, which states that Canadians should “be able to rely on the integrity, authenticity and security of the services they use and should feel safe online.” It also states that digital platforms are expected to “not foster or disseminate hate, violent extremism or criminal content,” and promises “clear, meaningful penalties” for breaking the rules the government plans to make using the charter’s principles. No new legislation will be introduced until after the next election, scheduled for October.

Erin Taylor, communications manager for Facebook Canada, said the number of people working on safety and security at the company had increased to more than 30,000 globally by the end of 2018. Asked how many of those additional hires were made in Canada, she said the company does not have a breakdown of employees by country. She directed questions about the November 2017 meetings to the government.