Nick Clegg’s political background — he was UK’s deputy PM from 2010 to 2015 — helps him maintain a fine balance between complex regulatory issues and free speech globally for Meta, which houses mega brands like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Clegg, president for global affairs at Meta, spoke to TOI on issues from data protection bill to fake news. He says governments, particularly in democracies like India, and not tech cos, should decide what’s allowed under law. Excerpts:
At a personal level, do you remain interested in British politics? And what do you make of Rishi Sunak?
I am still very interested. If you’ve been in public life, you can never be completely divorced from it. But, I don’t try and play any role in it anymore because I’ve got a full-time job doing what I’m doing at Meta. As for Rishi Sunak, he’s got a very difficult job on his hands, which is made more difficult by the fact that he’s having to deal with mistakes from his own party. So yeah, he’s got quite a full in-tray.
Coming to India, the government here recently came out with a new draft of the proposed digital personal data protection bill. How do you view the proposals, and where do you find India in terms of setting the global policy perspective for tech?
India now ranks very close to the top of the table of most significant digital economies. It really is starting to fulfil something that was talked about for years, which is India becoming a true digital superpower, and that’s a good thing for the world. What I sense from some of my recent discussions, and this is perhaps especially relevant as India is assuming the chairmanship of G20, is that India believes in the foundational principles of an open internet where data can flow openly around the world, but also where people’s privacy and safety are properly secured and where innovation is encouraged and fostered.
From my job, there are three regulatory planets which make the weather – there’s the United States, Europe and India. I won’t say China, that’s a sort of separate matter… I get the impression that India is increasingly self-confident about forging its own path to develop its own rules, which is a good thing. India’s too big to just take some off-the-shelf copy of European or American or British legislation.
As regards the draft of the digital personal data protection bill, it’s a much better build on its predecessor, and clearly written… I think a lot of countries are going to increasingly look to India, not Europe or America for their inspiration about what the rules of the road should be… the trends are moving towards not just Indian technological and engineering leadership, but thought and regulatory leadership as well.
There is constant friction between tech companies and governments over regulation around data, privacy and content moderation…
Not only do they have the right, governments, particularly in major democracies like India, are by far the best placed to determine what should and shouldn’t be allowed under the law. It shouldn’t be for a tech company to decide whether something is illegal or not. That should be the lawmakers in Delhi, on behalf of the great people of India.
Where it becomes more complicated is when you’re talking about legal content that governments or politicians don’t particularly like for one reason or another. And that’s when it becomes much more fraught. Because we have a clear legal obligation to remove illegal content. And that should be set out and the clearer that is, the better. The difficulty always is when governments and politicians want to put pressure on platforms to remove content, which they themselves have not made illegal. And that’s where we have our rules, we have our community standards, which go well beyond the law. There are 21 categories of content that we do not allow on our platform, everything from IP violations to nudity, from violence to hate speech.
The pinch point is always where politicians want us to not only go further than their own law, but also want to get further than our own community standards. And that’s where you get us saying, ‘Well, hang on, you didn’t make this illegal. We already go way beyond your law and now you want us to go even further.’ One thing that I always ask, and I would ask it of the Indian government as well, is that when demands are made to remove content, that should follow a proper and coherent process, which is consistent and transparent.
Meta has faced heat from whistle-blowers like Frances Haugen. Do you think that mistakes were made?
Social media didn’t exist 20 years ago. Now we cater to over half the world’s population. Of course, when something happens, mistakes are made, and guardrails need to be put in place. I’m sure if you go back 10 years, you’d think maybe the industry should have done more things earlier. But I don’t think anyone, any reasonable and objective observer, can claim that companies that matter have not made huge efforts in recent years to learn from those experiences, and to make very significant investments so that people can continue to enjoy the liberty of social media, but do so safely.
We now employ over 40,000 people to help with the integrity and safety of our platforms, we deploy the world’s most sophisticated AI systems to identify everything from hate speech to terrorist content, from nudity to criminality. And we do so on a scale, I think, never, ever done before by any private or public sector body.
What about fake news?
If you’re talking about content that is inciting violence, that’s just against our rules, and will be removed. Now if you’re talking about something else, which is stuff that’s not fully accurate, that’s a lot more complicated because we’re not a thought police. You don’t want Mark Zuckerberg sitting in California, determining whether what someone writes is statistically accurate or not. One of the freedoms in a free society is the freedom to talk nonsense. So, we don’t remove that. But we do have a network of independent fact-checkers. In fact, I think we have more fact-checkers in India than in any other country, anywhere in the world. We have 11 partners working in 15 languages. And they can independently look at Facebook, or Instagram, to see what is appearing. And if they think it’s missing context, or it’s partly false or it’s false, they write a report. And particularly if it’s false or partly false, we then demote that content by 80%, and put a great big filter on it, saying an independent fact-checker has found this to be faulty.
What about allegations of political bias?
The problem is the Left says we are biased to the Right, the Right says we are biased to the Left. Francis Haugen says we favour the Republicans, and the Republicans say we’re favouring the Democrats. I think that suggests that maybe it’s all in the eye of the beholder. It’s so crystal clear to me that there is absolutely no way, even if we wanted to, that we could somehow tweak our algorithm to give preference to one party over another. We have an open set of rules that apply to everybody, regardless of right, left or centre.
The Indian government wants you to provide the origins of viral messages that spread fake information through WhatsApp, some of which have even resulted in lynching incidents. Why do you refuse?
But how would you find the origin without fingerprinting every person’s message? It’s in the court now, so I don’t want to comment on it. But the fundamental issue is that you can’t have half encryption. It’s either genuinely private or not… But just because we can’t see the content of the messages doesn’t mean we don’t take aggressive action against accounts that are being used to spread hatred and violence. In September alone we removed 2.6 million WhatsApp accounts.
Will Donald Trump be back on FB and Instagram?
We will make an announcement next year.
There have been layoffs at Big Tech companies. And Meta has lost several billion dollars in market cap. Is there a state of panic right now?
No, there is no state of panic. Most tech companies recruited huge numbers during the pandemic because there was such a shift to living, working, educating and shopping online. The tech sector assumed those trends would continue, and they didn’t, because people started living more normally. But even after these layoffs, we are a far bigger company now than we were prior to the pandemic. In fact, we’re still going to be a bigger company by end-2022 than we were at the beginning. At Meta, we are incredibly optimistic. There is a totally legitimate debate around the scale of our investments into augmented and virtual reality because that’s a big, big long-term bet. But isn’t it great that there is a big Silicon Valley company prepared to take big bets on building a new computing platform?