Important to check virality of malicious content: Nicholas Clegg, Vice-President of global affairs & communications, Facebook

Nicholas Clegg, vice-president of global affairs & communications at Facebook, wants to see the social media giant play an active role in formulating new rules of the internet lest future generations regret decisions taken today — around privacy, data, open internet and more. In an interview with ET, the former deputy PM of UK discusses challenges facing Facebook, working with regulators, Brexit and other issues. Edited excerpts:

When it comes to Facebook, there is an issue of perception. Whatever you do is looked upon with suspicion. How do you address that?

With time and hard work. Once people develop misgivings about any company or any individual, there are no shortcut answers. You have to take them seriously and work hard to correct any mistakes — rebuild trust bit by bit, day by day. That is exactly what we are doing. We have deployed 30,000 people to moderate content and have developed sophisticated machine learning systems. Over 99% of terror-related material is now removed before anyone reports it to us.

The Cambridge Analytica issue did considerable damage to Facebook’s reputation. This requires a multi-year process of reform and change. We have gone through a huge change in every aspect of the company’s operations — how we hold data, how we keep people safe, how we protect the platform from malicious interference, how we work with governments to deal with criminality or terrorism.

One of the changes planned was the oversight board to moderate content which Mark Zuckerberg proposed in 2018. What is the status of that?

We will be publishing the charter of the board in a week or two. It will explain the mandate of the board, principles and values. Mark wants the board to be independent. Its decisions will be binding on Facebook and it will pre-eminently value free expression.

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Facebook and its family of apps have more than 2.5 billion users globally. No other social media company has that kind of scale. What do you have to say about the noises around breaking up Facebook?

We don’t tell the 2.5 billion people what to do with our products. There are different ways of sending messages, videos and photos. There is a lot of choice. Success is not equal to monopoly. Facebook is popular because people like to use our services. Being popular is not bad.

We don’t think there is any evidence that our presence is diminishing the market. I think it is quite right when companies are subject to scrutiny when they become very successful, very big. Success is not equal to monopoly. There are a lot of things we couldn’t do if you split the company. For instance, going after criminals and bad people by identifying bad behaviour. Instagram and Facebook share infrastructure that keeps people safe. Penalising successful companies will send extraordinary signals to corporate America.

How do you view data nationalism?

The defining features of internet are that it is borderless, fluid, open, ingenious, innovative and mutating all the time. Seeking to treat data like a birthday cake — take your slice and you keep it on your plate — runs directly counter to the genesis of the internet. If India does it today, Pakistan will do it tomorrow, then Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, Singapore. And before you know it, you have eroded the very genius of the internet. It doesn’t actually provide you with a solution to the problem you are seeking to address.

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WhatsApp and Facebook have been hauled up by the Indian government for content. Payments business has been delayed. Do you find it frustrating working in India?

No. We value scrutiny, accountability, debate and discussion, even if it takes longer. We would much rather take time to get things right and do so in consultation with governments in India and elsewhere.

Moving away from Facebook, what a mess Brexit has been. How do you see it playing out?

Just a mess? That is a big understatement. I think it is always going to be difficult in any country to impose a future on a whole generation of young people who want exactly the opposite. Over 80% of young people want to stay in the European Union and they are being told they can’t have a future that they have to inhabit. I find that very sad and disappointing.

It is unusual for a deputy PM to work for a company. Why did you opt for it?

Because I didn’t want to do what normally people in my position would do. You go to the House of Lords, pontificate, sit on a few boards, write a couple of books no one will read. I am only 52. I have huge amount of energy. I didn’t want to live a life of semi-retirement. I wanted to do something very new and very different. I am completely fascinated by this clash, this tension between society and technology, and I want to play a role in it. In 20-30 years, we will look back at these years and realise these were the years when the rules of the internet were set. That is why things like data localisation are so important. You get the rules wrong in the beginning, we will all regret the decisions taken.

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There is a debate on whether the content on WhatsApp is genuine or not. How can that change? Do people tend to trust the printed word than digital content?

I would be careful not to over romanticise the past. I spent 20 years in public life where, on a daily basis, British newspapers just printed rubbish and just rubbish. And we all knew that and the readers knew that. People always distrust politicians more than anyone else and the next category of people they distrust are the journalists.

I don’t think that the time where everything that was printed was always trusted ever existed. Free press is loud, diverse thing where people say things about each other. In a free country, people are free to say nonsense — that has always been the case. What is new is stuff goes viral and we have a unique responsibility that sets us apart: fact-check programme, automated systems, community standards we apply and so on. The most important thing is we try and identify malicious, misleading content and remove it. We constantly try to strengthen our systems to check virality.


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