- Facebook’s most senior spokesman warned European regulators against heavy-handed regulation of Silicon Valley companies.
- Nick Clegg, Facebook’s new communications chief, said inappropriate regulation would leave room for Chinese tech companies to dominate, even though they have scant regard for user privacy and security.
- Clegg pointed to “sinister” surveillance by the Chinese government as an example of what could happen.
- Clegg is currently in Brussels to try to butter up European regulators who have an appetite to break Facebook up.
Facebook’s most senior lobbyist warned that over-regulating big Silicon Valley businesses might inadvertently help boost Chinese internet firms, which have scant regard for user privacy or freedom of speech.
Nick Clegg, who was once the UK’s deputy prime minister, gave the warning in his first appearance in Brussels as Facebook’s most senior spokesman. He was appointed to the post of VP of global affairs and communications in October, and is widely expected to tap his extensive political connections to make Facebook’s life a little easier in the EU.
In his speech to journalists, Clegg suggested that Facebook’s critics should be equally concerned about Chinese internet companies.
“While the startup scene in Europe is increasingly healthy, we are a long way from the levels of investment we see in China and California,” Clegg said. “In Europe, the backlash against big tech is focused almost exclusively on the US tech giants – too big, too powerful, too slow to respond.
“These are of course legitimate questions, but we don’t hear so much about China, which combines astonishing ingenuity with the ability to process data on a vast scale without the legal and regulatory constraints on privacy and data protection that we require on both sides of the Atlantic,” he said.
While China’s approach to processing huge amounts of data might lead to major improvements in healthcare, it could “equally be put to more sinister surveillance ends, as we’ve seen with the Chinese government’s controversial social credit system,” Clegg added.
He concluded on a warning note: “The choice is not really between a caricature of American big tech and a perfectly formed European alternative on the other.”
“The real choice is between an appropriately regulated tech sector and an alternative in which ingenuity runs roughshod over basic guarantees of privacy and rights.”
It’s true that China’s investment in tech is surging, with startups raising around $US80 billion in capital last year, according to figures cited by the Nikkei Asian Review. That compares with an estimated $US100 billion for US startups, and a comparatively tiny $US23 billion for European startups.
Clegg’s comments come as Facebook comes under growing political pressure in Europe to explain how it will avoid a repeat of the 2016 US presidential election, where Russian operatives spread misinformation on its platform. EU elections are being held in May, and Clegg announced that Facebook would be tightening up its ad rules to prevent foreign interference.
European regulators see the issue of misinformation as a way to bring the social network to heel – they have the power to issue crippling fines or even break Facebook up. Facebook has already felt the impact of Europe’s wide-ranging privacy regulation, the GDPR, which requires the social network to seek explicit permission to gather certain types of data.
Clegg did not reject the idea of tighter regulation altogether, but talked about “appropriate regulation.” He also suggested Facebook should have a hand in shaping any new rules.
“We would like to be at heart of that discussion,” he said.
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