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

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page -

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?’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.