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How Facebook and Big Tech lost the room

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David Cameron, fresh-faced and years away from the convulsions of the Brexit referendum, stood before investors and entrepreneurs to lay out his vision for Silicon Valley in Britain.

“Something is stirring in East London,” he said. 

Launching plans for East London’s Tech City, he lavished praise on Google and Facebook for building new campuses in the city and promised a light-touch approach to US tech giants.

“Don’t interfere so much that you smother, but do help wherever you can,” he said.

More than a decade on from that speech in 2010, the dial has shifted dramatically on how the Government deals with the world’s biggest technology companies.

Gone are the cosy relationships. Increasingly, Big Tech firms face a hostile regulatory environment and fiery rhetoric. 

Today, senior figures in the Government are pushing for a hardline candidate to chair Ofcom, which will become Britain’s regulator of online harms and have an unprecedented ability to intervene in the web.

Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail who is known to avoid using a computer and shuns all social media, is the favoured candidate of the Conservative Party’s right.


Paul Dacre spent over a quarter of a century as editor of The Daily Mail


Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Such a tough line on technology firms also contrasts with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London. In 2014, he set up the first London Tech Week and happily rubbed shoulders with venture capitalists and tech lobbyists.

So just how and when did the relations between Big Tech and the Government turn so sour? 

End of an era

With Cameron’s exit after the Brexit referendum defeat, a wave of former policy wonks and special advisers were poached by tech firms. Most famously, the former Deputy Prime Minister Sir Nick Clegg is now Facebook’s head of global policy.

Mr Clegg’s former chief of staff has been at Facebook since 2018. There are around a dozen former spads across Google, Microsoft and Uber.

By 2017, the picture had started to shift. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum meant tech firms were blamed by younger audiences for tipping the elections with data harvesting and political adverts. Meanwhile, Conservatives turned against tech firms for what they saw as left-wing bias in the Silicon Valley agenda.

The hiring of Sir Nick in late 2018 attracted criticism. The world had turned against the coalition era, voting for Brexit and decisively rejecting the Liberal Democrats at the 2015 general election. Clegg, until then a sceptic of the US tech giants, was accused of hypocrisy by MPs for taking the role.

Under Theresa May, the UK had a Prime Minister who was suspicious of technology titans after years in the Home Office overseeing struggles against tech’s encryption and terror content.

“There is no doubt that May as Prime Minister changed the dynamic substantially,” says Dom Hallas, a former government adviser and director of the Coalition for a Digital Economy.

“Her natural inclination came from the Home Office, which saw tech primarily from a security perspective.”

Matt Hancock, the previously technophile junior Digital Minister, met technology lobbyists in September 2017 to warn them that their “tech utopia” was over.

“Coming of age means taking more responsibility for our actions,” he said.

“And so too must the internet, and the big players on it.”

Then there was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it was claimed that a small consulting firm helped swing the Brexit referendum using social media dark arts.

Although the most serious allegations were found to be untrue and many experts believe the company’s actions made little difference, this led to a long-running series of interrogations of Facebook staff before the media select committee. The Silicon Valley firm endured a hostile reception from MPs

Meanwhile, fears over online harms were put into stark relief by reporting of the suicide of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who was exposed to images of self-harm on Instagram.

In April 2019, May’s government introduced its Online Harms White paper, which would form the backbone of the Online Safety Bill published earlier this month. The proposals followed a long-running campaign by papers including the Telegraph – and the Mail under Mr Dacre.

Sweeping new powers

Jeremy Wright, Digital Secretary between 2018 and 2019, says the Government’s moves to rein in technology firms followed the public mood. Voters felt that technology firms were spreading disinformation and posing a risk to children.

“As a society we started to understand, and as a government, that technology has a downside,” Wright says.

“You have to have rules and regulations that apply online. We had not been through election cycles where it was clear that social media had a big effect. These problems had not been as visible.” 

Wright, who met Mark Zuckerberg during his tenure on a visit to Silicon Valley, said the Facebook founder had favoured the Government stepping in.

“They were prepared to engage with us,” he says. “Although they have some reservations, their general approach was to accept governments have the right to regulate.”

Big Tech firms have continued to rankle UK politicians since. Google briefly censored TalkRadio on YouTube last year in a move condemned by cabinet ministers. The January decision by Facebook to permanently suspend US President Donald Trump over the Capitol Hill riots has raised questions about its power over political speech

The Online Safety Bill – which was published this month, but is not likely to come into force until 2022 – will grant vastly expanded powers to Ofcom and hand new authority to whoever is chairman.

The sprawling bill will introduce a duty of care to protect children online and block illegal content, fining companies up to £18m or 10pc of annual turnover. It will also cover racist abuse and financial fraud, while also promising to protect journalism online and political speech.

Critics warn that the plans could prove a nightmare for freedom of speech by blocking comments that are classed as “legal but harmful”.

“The scope of these proposals is practically limitless,” says Matthew Lesh, of the Adam Smith Institute.

The Government has estimated that the policy will cost companies £2.1bn.

The other candidates

The appointment of Ofcom’s chairman is at the heart of a battle over how this regulation is implemented. Facebook officials were said to have spoken to senior officials over the process, prompting ministers to call for a re-run. 

Ed Vaizey, a former Conservative MP, is seen as a more moderate potential chairman.  Other runners include Sir Tom Windsor, a former rail regulator, and former Ofcom deputy chair Maggie Carver.


Ed Vaizey held the ministerial portfolio for digital industries from July 2014 until July 2016


Credit: Dan Dennison / Rex Features 

Facebook has denied having a preferred candidate.

A spokesman said: “Any suggestion of a lobbying campaign for or against any individual is simply false.”

However, Clegg’s animosity to the former Mail editor is no secret – a man he has previously labelled “Darth Dacre” and accused of stoking up support for Brexit.

One insider claimed that the Ofcom appointment process could favour “those who would slot in comfortably with the current system and not rock the boat”.

As a 72-year-old Fleet Street veteran who has called for Facebook to be broken up, Dacre would certainly shake the system to its core.

Technology sources have their own fears about the incoming regime and new rules.

“There is a concern that tech could get caught up in the broader culture wars agenda,” one insider said.

In spite of this, the Government has won plaudits for its support of domestic companies with the £1bn Future Fund to protect start-ups suffering due to Covid and reforms to the UK’s listings regime.

They may no longer use quite the same language, but ministers still harbour the same ambitions for British tech as in Cameron’s speech a decade ago.

However, the old days of a chummy relationship with the Silicon Valley titans are well and truly over.

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How to prepare your Facebook account for your digital afterlife

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Today, our online lives are where we share a lot of private and personal information, especially on social media platforms where we share many of our thoughts, post photos and videos over the time we have spent online. Among these social media platforms, Facebook is the most used social media service today. A lot of us, our friends and our family members have a Facebook account. We post and share everything from our private photos to a personal message via Facebook.

But have you wondered what happens to your Facebook account and the information (like posts, comments, photos, videos, etc.) that you have created and accumulated on the service after your time?

■ What will happen to my account?

■ Who can access your profiles?

■ Who will own your account and data?

■ How to manage it when such a time comes?

Facebook has added features to your account so that you can decide what happens to your account when such a time arises. Follow the steps given below to set it up and ensure that the information in your Facebook accounts is handed over to someone else safely or managed according to your choice.

Setting up Facebook’s legacy contact:

In the case of Facebook, you can choose to memorialise your account and hand over the control to a ‘Legacy contact’ of your choice or altogether delete your profile after your time.

Step 1: To set up your legacy contact, you can visit the ‘Settings & privacy’ option under your profile and select the ‘Memorialisation settings’ under ‘General Account settings’. You can also sign in to your account and visit https://www.facebook.com/settings to access this setting.

Step 2: Now, you can choose a legacy contact in this setting by searching for and adding a friend from your account as your legacy contact. Do note that, once memorialised, the legacy contact can only moderate the posts on your page and not post on your behalf.

Step 3: The following setting is to choose whether to allow your legacy contact to download all your data that you have created or shared on your Facebook account like posts, photos, videos etc.

Step 4: The final setting on this page could be considered an alternative to choosing a legacy contact. This setting is to delete your complete Facebook account once you pass away. Facebook needs to be informed about your death and requires verifying it with valid documentation to activate this feature. The company will delete all your information on Facebook on completion of this process.

To know more about these settings, you can visit the FAQ page on legacy contact.

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Big EU lawsuit against Facebook morphs into 3-year ‘partnership’ with complainants

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Three years ago, a group of EU consumer agencies launched a multi-country lawsuit against Facebook, accusing the social media giant of having illegally harvested the data of millions of users.

More than 300,000 angry Facebook users positioned themselves behind the collective action suit, which promised to award them individual monetary damages if the company was found guilty of wrongdoing.

On Friday, those lawsuits quietly morphed into a brand new partnership with Facebook.

Euroconsumers, the umbrella organization behind the Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Portuguese lawsuits, announced they were entering a partnership with the company focused on the “safety and privacy” of Facebook users.

The move comes after POLITICO reported that Euroconsumers had settled its lawsuit with Facebook at the end of April — and highlights the fact that collective action lawsuits rarely make it over the finish line in Europe, sheltering companies from the type of action that can produce crippling damages in U.S. courts while leaving consumers with little recourse.

Originally, Euroconsumers had told people who joined the case it would seek compensation of €200 for every Facebook user whose data was mishandled.

In the end, though, there will be no court decision, no admission of wrongdoing by Facebook and no direct payment from the company to consumers as a result of the settlement, according to Euroconsumers.

Instead, the consumer groups and Facebook said they were forming a joint committee focused on three priorities: sustainability, digital empowerment and fighting scams. The issue of privacy — which was the explicit focus of the lawsuit — is the “umbrella” under which the thee priorities fall.

As for the consumers, they are being promised a vague consolation prize.

The four consumer groups said they would commit to “reward” consumers who joined the original lawsuit with “a package to help consumers be safe online” — but no hard cash.

Asked whether Facebook had paid money to Euroconsumers in the settlement, the group declined to comment. POLITICO reached out to Facebook, but the company didn’t give an immediate response apart from the press release.

Meanwhile, the committee isn’t committed to producing any specific results.

“There are specific initiatives in the making, but there will also be a consumer reporting channel. We will able to report problems that emerge, like feedback from our members,” said Els Bruggeman, head of policy at Euroconsumers.

A spokesperson for the group said: “It’s the moment to try to influence the reasoning from companies who are managed far away.”

Legally speaking, though, the heat is off Facebook.

The consumer groups will evaluate their collaboration in three years.

“An agreement for one year would be too short. Three years is long enough to be able to evaluate. There will be a lot of changes in the digital world in that period,” added the spokesperson.

In the meantime, a change in legislation may give future collective action lawsuits in Europe more teeth: A directive finalized late last year could lead to bigger pan-European collective redress cases.

Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.

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Russian watchdog demands that Facebook delete post insulting WWII veterans

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MOSCOW, May 29. /TASS/. Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) demanded that US company Facebook delete an Instagram post that insults the memory of World War II veterans, the watchdog said on its website on Friday.

“Roskomnadzor has sent a letter to Facebook Inc top management, demanding that content insulting the memory of World War II veterans be deleted,” the watchdog said. “The governmental agency found the unlawful post on the Instagram social network, owned by Facebook.”

According to Roskomnadzor, publication of clearly offensive information that insults Russia’s military glory and memorable dates, or desecrates military glory symbols, or offends WWII veterans constitutes a criminal offense in Russia and is subject to criminal proscution.

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