Facebook renews calls for EU regulation in ‘fight for the soul of the internet’

Nick Clegg, Vice-President, of Global Affairs at Facebook, spoke to Brussels reporters on Monday, 2 December. [EPA/ANDY RAIN]

An ideological ‘fight’ is tacking place worldwide between those who want to restrict open access to the Internet and those who want to maintain a free and open web within necessary regulatory frameworks, Facebook’s Vice President for Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, has said.

The former UK deputy Prime Minister said on Monday (2 December) that rules are required so that the company could relinquish the burden of being the “umpire of political speech online,” which he says would be “an astonishing arrogation of power to a private tech industry.”

“There is a fight for the soul of the Internet going on at the moment,” Clegg said. “There are certainly two Internets, the Chinese Internet and the non-Chinese Internet, but there are many countries now, and particularly in more authoritarian parts of the world who are actively seeking to emulate the Chinese wall that has been built.”

Speaking to Brussels reporters during a trip to the city to meet with Commission Vice-Presidents Vera Jourova and Valdis Dombrovskis, Clegg added that as an American company, Facebook has much in common with European values, and, in a direct message to incoming members of the European Commission, he called for new EU rules for online content that could be seen as a model for other nations worldwide to follow suit.

“We have, across the Atlantic, far more in common with each other in seeking to safeguard an open and free and borderless internet than we do have in common with the new internet paradigm being built, brick by brick in China, and elsewhere.”

“We hope that the new generation of regulation rules will be introduced by decision makers here in Brussels,” Clegg said, adding that there’s “a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of decision makers” in the EU to conceive of regulation that “safeguards the ingenuity and freedom that is enshrined in an open borderless internet.”

The European Commission is currently in the process of thrashing out the details of the Digital Services Act, a new framework due to be put forward by the Commission in 2020, which will update the decades-old eCommerce directive and establish new rules governing the internet.

EURACTIV recently caught up with new Commission Vice-President for ‘making Europe fit for the digital age’ Margrethe Vestager, who said that questions need to be addressed with regards to the ‘liabilities’ of platforms as well as compliance with various codes of practice currently in operation, including the code of practice against disinformation.

Clegg’s message on Monday echoes one made in April by Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, in which he called for more regulation on internet services across areas involving harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.

“I believe we need a more active role for governments and regulators,” Zuckerberg wrote in the Washington Post. “By updating the rules for the Internet, we can preserve what’s best about it — the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things — while also protecting society from broader harms.”

Political ads

One area in which Facebook are adamant that they will not reconsider their position on, despite growing pressure, is in the field of political advertising. In November, social media rival Twitter announced that they would ban all political advertising on their platform, while Google are set to limit ad targeting based on political affiliation. Facebook, Clegg says, will not follow suit.

“We will not follow Twitter’s example,” he said, adding that political advertising is a “legitimate use of our platform for politicians in open democracies.”

Twitter, for their part, have been keen to highlight their work to combat foreign interference in national elections. In September, the company released their most recent update on state-backed information operations, which brought to light a series of take-downs that the company made in response to alleged campaigns to interfere in extraterritorial elections. The removals included accounts from Spain, Saudi Arabia, and China.

In other areas, Clegg said on Monday that the Commission had been pushing Facebook for the disclosure of more granular data sets that the company stores on its users, but that there would be “privacy risks” to the sharing of data with competitors more broadly – something that the Commission has previously hinted it would oblige Facebook to do.

“We have the constant tug of war which is that the more precise we make the data available, the more liable it is to lead to privacy abuses,” he said.

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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