In his brilliant insider-account of his time at Facebook, Chaos Monkey, Antonio Garcia Martinez describes the process of ‘onboarding’. It’s the quasi-religious ceremony of inducting new staff into the company. “Whatever you learned at your previous job” Martinez was told, “whatever politics and bullshit you’re bringing with you, just leave all that shit behind.”
I doubt Nick Clegg will do the same when he takes up his new role as Facebook’s head of global affairs. I’m guessing that his politics and bullshit is the reason he got the job.
While his reputation was – slightly unfairly – damaged by the student fees debacle, Clegg is someone with pretty solid liberal credentials. He took a real interest in issues of surveillance and privacy throughout his time in government. (I remember briefing him about surveillance powers around 2013 and he was very impressive). His opposition to so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ helped to shelve that bill – at least for a while. He was a long-standing opponent of ID cards too. Exactly the sort of politics, post-Cambridge Analytica, that Facebook needs. Maybe the company’s recent pieties about privacy is driven by shareholder nerves and user demands – but that doesn’t make them any less real. In fact, I see Clegg’s politics and bullshit coming in very useful for three immediate challenges that Facebook is currently grappling with.
First up, he’ll have to help reassure investors and users that the company is as serious about user privacy as he is. This is very difficult, because a growing number of people are suspicious of the underlying business model of companies like Facebook, which relies on surveillance and profiling. This means there may be a few more public apologies to come. Fortunately Nick Clegg is the most famous person in the UK for saying ‘I’m sorry’.
If he manages to navigate that, he has to grapple with the almost impossibly complicated task of defending Facebook’s policies across different countries. In one sense it’s a simple conundrum: Facebook follows the law in the country it operates in. But some of those laws are extremely draconian and illiberal, and Facebook is quite a liberal company. A good analogy is, I don’t know, being a liberal that’s trying to work inside a conservative system, which requires endless, difficult, irritating compromise for everyone. Who has more experience than Nick?
Finally he might be tasked with turning around some of the unfair reports Facebook has endured of late. The company has become a convenient punchbag for all that is wrong in the world. The Home Secretary recently said the company needs to do more to tackle illegal images of children on the site – even though nearly all illegal child abuse images are hosted overseas on cyberlockers and inaccessible servers. Facebook’s plight isn’t helped by the fact that most newspapers don’t like them because of how much online ad revenue it soaks up. Ever had the feeling of being loved one minute, hated the next, and being treated unfairly by the press? Nick’s grandmaster level.
You might even say this is a highly ambitious job that carries an enormous amount of responsibility but without equivalent power. The sort of job that idealistic liberal types take on and get ground down by. I can’t think of anyone better qualified.