Nick Clegg may find Facebook a harder sell than the Lib Dems
As the former Lib Dem leader sallies forth to the court of King Mark, Laurence Dodds in San Francisco and Matthew Field in London report on his task ahead
Imagine for a moment that you are Sir Nick Clegg. You have just been hired as Facebook’s head of global affairs and communications. Now you find yourself in a maze of twisty little passages, all horrible. On one side you can see flames of growing anger over the company’s aggressive lobbying operations. On another you can hear the approaching footsteps of European regulators on the march. You are carrying a torn Lib Dem membership card and a commemorative Remain campaign mug. What do you do?
When Sir Nick was deputy prime minister in the coalition government, battling against the Conservatives to make his voice heard, he could at least point to his democratic mandate as an MP and as the leader of a party voted for by almost 7m people. But Facebook is not a democracy – far from it, amid mounting accusations the platform has become a vehicle for misinformation, extremism and Russian meddling – while Sir Nick is now just a royal adviser serving at the pleasure of King Mark.
Despite mounting dissent from investors, Mr Zuckerberg remains in total control of Facebook as its chief executive, the chairman of its board and controlling shareholder.
Yet Sir Nick also joins at a key moment of transition. After a traumatic two years on the defensive, Facebook is finally articulating a coherent plan to convince the world it can be trusted. Its executives have become markedly more forthcoming about how they hope to handle the problem of fake news. And earlier this month, Mr Zuckerberg pledged to do what many previous monarchs have done: to protect the legitimacy of his office by setting limits on his own power.
In a 4,000-word blog post, he admitted that “sensationalist and provocative” material has a structural advantage on Facebook and outlined a plan to bury and “disincentivise” such content. He described Facebook’s increased use of artificial intelligence to take down rule-breaking content before anyone sees it, and flag it for human moderators in ambiguous cases. But since that system currently gets one in ten decisions wrong – around 200,000 errors per day – he pledged to create “an independent body, whose decisions would be transparent and binding”, to which all users could appeal against Facebook’s moderation decisions. “I’ve increasingly come to believe that Facebook should not make so many important decisions about free expression and safety on our own,” he wrote. In the past, he has referred to such a body as something like a “supreme court”.
It is an important moment, because it echoes what a small number of thinkers have been saying for some time: that Facebook, like the United States, should have a constitution. At issue is the huge power it wields over who says and publishes what across the world. “Facebook is creating and enforcing a single code, its Community Guidelines, on a greater number of people than any national government ever has,” said Emma Llansó, director of free expression at the Centre for Democracy and Technology in Washington DC. Hence, the argument goes, just as the power of kings was checked by parliaments, and the power of private companies checked by industrial regulation, the power of technology must also be “constitutionalised”.
“The new reforms are largely a response to this firestorm of criticism and deep crisis of Facebook’s legitimacy,” said K Sabeel Rahman, head of the US think tank Demos and one of the first people to raise the constitutional question. “Seeing the writing on the wall, Facebook is trying to stave off more aggressive regulatory oversight by setting up its own self-regulatory process … just as the constitution is designed to provide checks and balances for the public power of the state, here Facebook is attempting to legitimise and temper its own power by creating this body.”
Indeed, Mr Zuckerberg’s proposals lift a number of ideas from regulators and activists who are trying to rein Facebook in. His call for laws requiring tech firms to publish statistics about their content moderation mirrors a key part of the German Network Enforcement Act, or Netzdg, which came into force in January, and Zuckerberg’s supreme court also resembles the independent moderation bodies the Netzdg was intended to prompt tech firms to set up. His proposals also follow the Santa Clara Principles, a set of guidelines for content moderation proposed by activists which include the right to a “meaningful and timely repeal”. On the other hand, they lack any deadline for content to be removed – also a key part of the Netzdg and the EU’S approach.
According to Matti Littunen, an analyst at Enders Analysis, this is part of a broader strategy of accepting regulation in the hope that Facebook’s involvement can limit the damage. “Everyone at Facebook must have realised by now that national regulation is coming, and anything that they can appear to do in the self-regulation side is a win.” The EU, fresh from biting into Facebook’s European user growth with the General Data Protection Regulation, is touting tough new anti-terror laws requiring “terrorist content” to be removed in one hour. Mr Zuckerberg said in his blog post that he wants to work with the EU to create “the right regulations”.
The stakes are high. Facebook’s “nightmare scenario”, said Mr Littunen, is that tech giants might lose the “safe harbour” protections they currently enjoy under US and EU law, which exempt them from liability for any copyrighted or illegal content on their services. Losing these exemptions would force them to invest even more resources into proactively removing content – and, more significantly, might incentivise them to err on the side of censorship, which in turn would cause outrage and drive users away. Another threat described by Robert Madelin, a veteran of Brussels and former head of the EU’S technology directorate, is that other Western states will copy Britain’s “great firewall”, which will soon force internet providers to block internet porn sites which do not properly check their users’ age. Some children’s campaigners have argued this should apply to social media too.
So will Mr Zuckerberg’s new plan cut any mustard? Many observers are sceptical. “These changes are far too vague and thin to provide meaningful accountability and restraint,” said Mr Rahman, arguing they would not solve the bigger problem that Facebook’s profits come from “maximising people’s time spent on the platform”. Jennifer Grygiel, a professor in communications at Syracuse University in New York state, dismissed it as “public relations”, saying: “It can’t be independent as long as [Mr Zuckerberg] is in absolute control over Facebook. And honestly, I don’t think anyone should accept this appointment until he relinquishes some power.”
But all is not lost for brave Sir Nick. With elections to the European Parliament taking place in 2019, and consequently a new set of officials being appointed to the European Commission, there are unlikely to be any serious new regulatory drives until after that date. Even then, said Mr Littunen, EU member states are divided, with countries such as the Netherlands and Estonia sceptical of regulation because of their tech industries. That might allow Sir Nick to practise the ancient European art of divide and conquer.
Many at Facebook doubt his chances, however. “A lot of people in the valley are asking who he is,” says one former Facebook employee. “He has no relationships in DC so how can he be the right guy? There’s an internal sweepstakes on how long he will last and most think no more than 1-2 years.”
But Sir Nick, as a former European Commission bureaucrat administrating aid to post-soviet countries, a former MEP and a former British MP, does have advantages too. Despite mockery at home, he is well-liked in Europe, recently helping write the 2019 election manifesto for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, a group of MEPS likely to be a kingmaker in the next parliament. “From a British perspective it’s easy to dismiss him,” Mr Madelin said. “But this is a quite seriously connected politician. He’s probably respected everywhere across the EU except his own country.”
Even so, he must beware. Despite telling the BBC that he only accepted the job because he would have “real authority” – being inside “the inner circle, in the black box” – Sir Nick is not a top executive who reports directly to King Mark. Instead his boss is Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer who was at the centre of this month’s lobbying scandal. “I think he is very committed to doing the right thing,” said one former Lib Dem MP. “But will they give him the space and listen to his advice when it may not be what they want to hear?” Another senior Lib Dem said that in order to survive, Sir Nick must be willing to threaten to walk out. “If Nick sticks to his guns, then any reputational damage would be to Facebook. He will have to use every ounce of his brains and charm.”
More broadly, according to Mr Littunen, Facebook needs to outline a “positive vision” that goes beyond platitudes about connecting the world. Whereas his predecessor Elliot Schrage, a “DC lawyer lobbyist type”, has reportedly been criticised inside the company for being too reactive, Sir Nick must help Facebook articulate “values for a new face of the internet”, improving its relationships with governments and civil society groups to become a “trusted political actor in its own right”.
A new supreme court will be a good start, if Facebook can convince outsiders that it truly is independent. If not, Sir Nick may soon find himself not sallying forth in service of his liege but besieged inside the palace – with torches waving.
‘A lot of people in the valley are asking who he is. He has no relationships in DC so how can he be the right guy?’