The Times: Facebook accused of poaching UK officials to influence policy

The Times: Facebook accused of poaching UK officials to influence policy

Article by Eleni Courea and George Greenwood for The Times - published 25 August 2020

Facebook has recruited ten former policy officials since the start of last year, heightening concerns of a close relationship between the government and technology companies.

The findings reveal a systematic hiring of government insiders with knowledge of the regulatory process. The officials left roles in government and with regulators to work on policy and communications for Facebook, indicating that mandarins are being offered significant incentives to do so.

Senior Conservative MPs said that Facebook was seeking to limit regulations before they were introduced.

Julian Knight, the Tory chairman of the Commons committee on digital, culture, media and sport, said that the public “have a right to question the cosy relationship between government and big tech at all levels”. He added: “The truth is big tech has taken over from the likes of banking, oil and pharmaceuticals in terms of their lobbying power.”

Damian Collins, a Tory MP and former chairman of the committee, said that Facebook was “clearly hiring people who have both direct personal knowledge of the latest thinking on how this could be developed, and extensive networks amongst the officials who will be advising ministers on these issues. They are doing this to try and change the direction of policy before it is even launched.”

The moves are not published in official transparency releases, either because the officials were not senior enough or because they worked for independent regulators such as Ofcom. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which vets appointments of former crown servants, only checks at director-general level and above, and its advice is non-binding.

Three senior regulatory staff at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are among those who recently joined Facebook. They are Shane Murphy, former head of policy on international data transfers, Caroline Hurst, former senior policy adviser on internet safety, and Annabel Brody, who led media regulation at the department. Other policy officials joined from the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and UK Counterterrorism Policing.

Steve Goodrich, of Transparency International UK, said: “In theory, there are restrictions on former civil servants using privileged information to benefit their new employers but how much this is enforced in practice is up for debate.”

The Times also found that at least 14 special advisers had moved to tech companies including Uber, Google, Facebook in the past five years after a stint in ministerial offices. The advisers would have had access to departmental chiefs and the policy formation process.

The government has come under pressure to introduce long-delayed online harms regulation, which will attempt to force companies such as Google and Facebook to take more responsibility for what people post on their platforms.

Lucy Purdon, policy director at Privacy International said: “No doubt Facebook has one eye on the future and what influence they can hire in as the government edges towards increasing protections for users and demanding more transparency from platforms.”

Susan Hawley, executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, said: “The system for regulating the revolving door in the UK is badly broken and urgently needs reform.”

Facebook said: “Our policy teams play a key role in developing and applying Facebook's policies such as our community standards — which set out what is and isn’t allowed on our platforms. Having people with a range of expertise helps ensure that those policies and rules are effective and up to date. Facebook has actively called for new regulations to set high standards across the internet and so that private companies aren’t making so many of these important decisions alone.”

Copyright 2019 Damian Collins. All rights reserved

Promoted by Russell Tillson for and on behalf of Damian Collins, both of Folkestone & Hythe Conservative Association both at 4 West Cliff Gardens, Folkestone, Kent CT20 1SP

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