Nick Clegg, Facebook’s chief lobbyist and a former British deputy prime minister, on Monday rejected suggestions that the company should impose limits on political ads, arguing that such measures could hurt the chances of “insurgent” politicians trying to break through.
His comments came after Twitter and Google both announced changes to how they handle these partisan ads, amid growing criticism in Europe, the United States and elsewhere that the world’s largest social network is helping to polarize electorates.
“On political ads, we have a different stance to Twitter,” Clegg told reporters during a two-day visit to Brussels where he will meet with European Commission officials as well as lawmakers from the European Parliament. “If you look at the way in which Facebook is being used by challenger, newcomer and insurgent politicians, it’s an extremely important instrument by which democratic debate is enriched,” he added.
When asked if Facebook would take steps to reduce how political campaigns could target voters across Facebook, Instagram and Messenger, Clegg refused to confirm reports that the tech giant is considering such a move.
“We don’t want to enter into the perilous, and we believe highly inappropriate, role of being a political referee in mature democracies,” said Clegg, who was due to meet with the Commission’s Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová, but not Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s antitrust and digital policy czar, during his time in Brussels.
“That basic scaffolding will remain the same. But of course, we will constantly look at further enhancements and improvements, and make announcements when we’re ready to do so,” he added.
With just weeks to go before a general election in the United Kingdom, Clegg also rebuffed criticism on both sides of the Atlantic that the company is not clamping down on the worst abusers of its services, including widespread trolling, terrorist content and political messaging that does not fully identify sponsors.
“Is it the role of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, sitting in Silicon Valley, to start entering into highly contentious claims and counterclaims of politicians?” he said. “The idea that we from Silicon Valley should be jumping in and changing every adverb or adjective or half-statistic that isn’t being fully vetted, we think, would be putting us into a wholly inappropriate and excessive position of power.”
The former British politician, who joined Facebook last year as part of an overhaul of the company’s dealings with policymakers in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, again called on officials to revamp rules for the digital age. Facebook is also under new pressure to check political content, with the government of Singapore last week forcing the company to post a “correction notice” on a post.
In Europe and the United States, the social network faces a series of investigations related to potential privacy revelations, competition concerns and its role within democratic elections.
Clegg said it should not be left to private companies like Facebook to determine how online content should be policed.
Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, recently told U.S. lawmakers that other countries could look to emulate China’s version of the internet, which includes mass surveillance of people’s online activities, if Brussels and Washington did not act swiftly to safeguard a so-called open and free internet.
“There’s a fight for the soul of the internet right now,” he said. “European and American decision-makers have much, much more in common with each other, even in this age of considerable transatlantic, geostrategic and political tensions.”
Despite calls for policymakers to pass new digital legislation, Clegg pushed back at recent regulatory efforts against Libra, the new digital currency that is backed, in part, by the social network.
Since it was announced earlier this year, the plan has come under repeated attacks from politicians, central bankers, privacy regulators and competition authorities.
Yet when asked if he was surprised about this wholesale skepticism, the Facebook executive said that those who believe Libra is a currency that could eventually replace those from sovereign governments have misunderstood the project’s objective.
“Part of the problem, candidly, is one of terminology,” said Clegg. “Because it’s branded a cryptocurrency — and therefore has currency in it — it’s misleading. It’s a payments system, it’s not a currency.
“I would draw a distinction between those who have been reacting to it as if it’s a currency, I think that is fundamentally wrong,” he added. “Anyone who reasonably looks at the details would not call it a currency.”