#WebSummit: Nick Clegg Claims Internet Needs Accountability, Not Rules

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Speaking as part of the online Web Summit in conversation with John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, former deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg said there is a concern where technology is blamed for everything from the results of elections to climate change.

Now VP of global affairs at Facebook, Clegg said the ability to use data at scale “is considered to be suspicious or dodgy” and his conversations with politicians and policy makers globally suggest a “deep seated imprecise antagonism to the idea that data can be held safely, and at scale, to provide free tools.” He claimed that data has to be used in an inventive and ingenious way, as it will be the “lifeblood of medicine, health and education for years to come.”

Speaking on privacy, Micklethwait said there is a need to “grow up with new laws” especially as debates about Section 230 continue and Facebook makes “editorial decisions on what to show.” Clegg said there is a legitimate societal and political debate to be had on the role of technology in society, “and I think Section 230 is one of the things that should be revisited if there is the political consensus to do so in DC.”

Section 230 was passed into law in 1996, and provides immunity from liability for any “provider or user of an interactive computer service” for the content provided by a third party. It has come into focus as US President-elect Joe Biden has called for it to be revoked.

Clegg said there is a need for updated rules for the internet, as Section 230 exempts the likes of Facebook and YouTube from liability over content “that those companies themselves do not generate.” He argued that as Facebook is not a conventional publisher, it doesn’t have the requirement to spot malicious content, but Section 230 allows Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to “aggressively intervene on that content where it breaks the law or our own other standards.”

He added that Facebook had removed 2.5 million pieces of hate speech from its platform, degrading and labelling content and allowing fact checkers to do their work. “All of that is permitted under Section 230.” Clegg said that Section 230 allows these companies to do content moderation that people want to be done.

“The truth is Facebook is not like a conventional publisher, as billions of ordinary people post whatever they like and it is an amazing freedom that these technologies give, which is why I remain so enthusiastic as not withstanding the controversies, you’re empowering billions of people for free,” he said. Whilst Facebook doesn’t commission content, it does have a responsibility to “police the guardrails within which that content appears on our platform.” He said these can be guardrails set by law or its own content, while there is diversity of opinion on what is legal.

Asked by Micklethwait about what steps he would take if he were still in politics, Clegg said “as an old fashioned liberal who is not good when states start to interfere on what citizens can and cannot say,” governments should not get into legislation to determine what legal speech can be used on a platform, “as that is the route to very worrying state censorship.” However, what government should and will do is say to the likes of Facebook that it is their legal duty to show they have policies and practices in place to keep users safe and secure on the platform.

Also, systems need to be shown to be auditable and transparent, and if they are not operating like that, or fail, there will be penalties and sanctions attached.

“We need a systems-based form of accountability” and this is why Facebook publishes a transparency report every 12 weeks. He said this will be audited not to ensure government needs to step in, but to say to big companies “you have got to show that you have got all of your arrangements in place and do this as best as you can using content moderators, machine learning tools and by having accountable standards.”

Clegg concluded by saying you have to have these in place and if you do not “the law will come down hard on you, and that is the kind of accountability and transparency, in my own view, that would work best.”

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