Nick Clegg, Facebook's Vice-President of Global Affairs and Communications, has responded to questions on topics ranging from alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum to Facebook's obligations around protecting younger users. Earlier today, Clegg sat down for an interview on BBC radio, and faced a grilling on his company's activities, past and present.
The former British Deputy Prime Minister was no doubt familiar with such lines of questioning. But, with BBC Radio 4's Today Programme pulling no punches, he had to deal with some particularly hard questions about Facebook.
Also up for discussion were calls for Facebook's regulation, the Christchurch shooting, and the threat of tech progress in the East.
1. Facebook Welcomes Regulation
Clegg made his case for regulation of tech companies, and that this should come from government bodies. It's a position that the company has turned the corner on in recent months, with one critic, former founder Chris Hughes, claiming that the reason for this change of heart is that Facebook fears the alternative – being broken up.
When this was brought up in the BBC interview, Clegg, who in his former political career was very pro-competition, retaliated:
“I haven't drunk the Silicon Valley Kool Aid. I do remain objective. However, does breaking up companies solve privacy or hate speech issues? They don't go away by breaking up companies.”
He went on to say that Facebook wants to work with governments to help regulate four key areas that the company has identified – none of which it would be able to do in isolation. Those areas are:
- Privacy – Clegg argued that privacy rights are more advanced in Europe, and these should be extended to all users)
- Election rules – Facebook claims it is stringent in how it handles political adverts, through a vetting process. It also holds a library of adverts for 7 years for references, and wants other companies to be held to the same standard.
- Defining offensive boundaries – Clegg claimed that he wanted to work with others to define what content is and isn't deemed appropriate online
- Data portability – The act of being able to easily transport your data from one service to another.
With many in the US, including Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, asking for the break up of large tech corporations, it's not too hard to see why Facebook might now have decided to play ball.
2. ‘Techlash' Could Harm the West
Clegg has spoken previously about ‘techlash', his term for the public's less than enthusiastic response to their erosion of privacy. Some might argue that this represents a healthy cynicism. But not Clegg:
“The pendulum has swung from tech euphoria, where people like Mark Zuckerberg can do no wrong, to tech phobia, where people like Mark Zuckerberg can do no right.”
According to Clegg, if the West becomes too pessimistic and turns its back on technology too much, it runs the risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and being overtaken by a country with fewer scruples and established rights:
“There is a battle for tech dominance between China and the US. They don't have similar privacy concerns as we do. I can predict within a short period of time, we will have a tech domination from a country with a wholly different set of values to our own.”
3. Facebook Learned from the Christchurch Shooting
In March this year, a New Zealand man killed 51 people in a horrific attack on Muslim worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch, filming the massacre as he went. Facebook has received a lot of criticism for its role as a distribution platform for the video. Although it was live-streamed directly to Facebook at the time, most of the damage was done in the aftermath, as the video was repeatedly uploaded and shared on social media.
In a curt exchange, Clegg defended Facebook, when it was put to him that humanity has never known such a powerful mass communication tool. The argument used was that the service was being adopted as a negative and harmful tool by some members of the public with little repercussion or control.
Clegg argued Facebook was only as moral as the person using it. He likened it to the printing press being responsible for both Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as well as Hitler's Mein Kampf. His interviewer countered that this was exactly the same argument that pro gun groups make. Given that Clegg cited an interest in gun prohibition in the same interview, this was a move sure to irritate.
When the video was first live-streamed, Clegg stated that it was seen by around 200 people. It was the hours after where the most damage was done, with the video repeatedly uploaded to Facebook, as well as other social media sites, and seen by over 1.5 million people. Clegg stated that since then, he has been working with other large social media companies, as well as governments, to find ways to mitigate the spread of similar harmful material in the future.
4. Facebook Can Protect Young People on Instagram
Facebook-owned Instagram has come in for a lot of criticism in Clegg's home country over the past few years. Most notably, due to a high profile case where a 14 year old girl's suicide was linked to material about depression and suicide on the her Instagram feed. Instagram boss, Adam Mosseri, stated in an interview last week that the company was unable to solve the issue on its own, adding “we can't stop people from saying nasty things”.
When asked how the company could tackle the problem, Clegg said that Instagram had been speaking with mental health experts, and that it now acts to take down graphic content, as well as introducing filters to hide certain content.
Whether or not this goes far enough remains to be seen. Even some of its biggest stars don't like using the platform. Selena Gomez, who has over 152 million subscribers, has recently said that it makes her feel depressed, and the she avoids using it:
“I used to use it a lot, but I think it's become really unhealthy for young people, including myself, to spend all of their time fixating on all of these comments and letting this stuff in”
5. Russia Didn't Meddle with the UK Referendum
Perhaps understandably, one of the hot topics in the BBC interview was that of Facebook's contribution to the Brexit referendum result. With the UK scheduled to leave the European Union in October of this year, there has been a lot of speculation that Russia had been pulling the strings of public perception on social media, and sowing misinformation about the UK staying in the EU.
Clegg, who is a staunch ‘remainer' – someone who wanted to stay within the EU – shot down this allegation:
“There is no evidence that it happened in the Brexit referendum. We ran two full analyses of all the data we have in the run up to the Brexit referendum; we have found no evidence of a significant attempt by outside forces”
Clegg also downplayed the important of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, wherein it emerged that the consulting firm had harvested millions of Facebook users details for political purposes. According to Clegg, no raw Facebook data was found on the company's servers, and no UK Facebook user data was involved. Despite this, several former employees of Cambridge Analytica have since come forward and stated that the firm was involved in helping promote pro-Brexit groups.
Instead, Clegg deflected the criticism to other sources. He claimed that Eurosceptism roots go very deep within the UK, and that any influence held on voters was far more likely to have come from more traditional media outlets.
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