Nick Clegg, a British former politician, has become vice-president of global affairs and communications at the US social media giant Facebook.
Explaining his decision in The Guardian newspaper, Clegg, who once led the centre-left Liberal Democrat party, acknowledged that his move was likely to attract criticism.
“As with most big decisions I took in politics, I expect my decision to move to Silicon Valley will be shouted down by people from the left and the right,” he wrote.
Clegg is indeed no stranger to angry voices. His political career peaked – or troughed, depending on your point of view – in 2010 when he agreed to form a coalition government with the centre-right Conservative party. Clegg became deputy prime minister under the then leader of the Conservatives, David Cameron. During his time in government, he provoked outrage among Lib Dem members when he dropped a pre-election pledge to oppose any increase in university tuition fees – a move for which he later apologised.
In his explainer, Clegg said he hopes to help Facebook navigate the challenges of the “data-driven technological revolution”, which he said is affecting every aspect of people’s lives: “the control we have over our personal data; the integrity of our democratic process; the power and concerns about artificial intelligence; the tension between the global internet and national jurisdictions; the balance between free speech and prohibited content; and the wellbeing of our children”.
He said he is “a stubborn optimist about the progressive potential to society of technological innovation”, adding that it can transform work, play, relationships, healthcare and transport, and help to protect the environment and keep streets safe.
“If the tech industry can work sensibly with governments, regulators, parliaments and civic society around the world, I believe we can enhance the benefits of technology while diminishing the often unintended downsides,” he wrote. “It is time to build bridges between politics and tech so that tech can become the servant of progress and optimism, not a source of fear and suspicion.”
It is not the first time that Clegg has written in favour of technology companies in general, and Facebook in particular. In 2016, while no longer in government or leading the Lib Dems but still an MP, he wrote an article for the Evening Standard in which he said he found “the messianic Californian new-worldy-touchy-feely culture of Facebook a little grating” and thought the company should perhaps be paying more tax. But he added that Facebook should not be blamed for potentially enabling misinformation to affect the 2016 US election, saying: “let’s not shoot the messenger. If people don’t like the fact that lots of Trump supporters believed the poisonous bile spread about Hillary Clinton, it’s not Zuckerberg’s fault.”
The following year, now having been ditched by his constituents and essentially dumped out of politics, he wrote another article for the website iNews in which he prefigured his future role by calling for “a new deal between the tech world and politics”.
“Tech companies need to embrace, not shun, new ways for people to control their personal data, new ways to challenge fake news, and to accept greater scrutiny of the immense power they wield over markets, and of the taxes they pay,” he wrote. “Governments, old fashioned media, and the public at large need to avoid a knee-jerk condemnation of the disruption and potency of new technologies, and embrace the idea that technology can improve our lives.”
These articles may help to explain why Facebook’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and its chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wanted Clegg for the role. Clegg wrote in his explainer that the two held “numerous conversations” with him in the months before his appointment.
Clegg also has extensive experience of EU politics, which must also have attracted Facebook given that the EU has been frequently tussling with social media companies in recent years over issues such as tax and data privacy. He spent five years working at the European Commission, including on trade negotiation, and then another five years as an MEP in the European Parliament.
News of Clegg’s appointment was greeted with incredulity by many. The newspaper in which Clegg chose to publish his explanation of his move, The Guardian, was withering in its assessment. It wrote:
“There is an awful symmetry in Sir Nick’s move from British politics to Facebook. In his earlier career, he stood for a posture of responsibility without power, of careless promises to which he was later held by an unforgiving electorate. In his new one there will be more of the same.”
Rather forlornly, the newspaper concluded:
“It’s easy to laugh at Sir Nick. But in his new job, as in his old, he has identified some real problems. We must hope that someone comes up with better solutions than he and his party managed.”
Words: Craig Nicholson
Photo: European Commission