The Times: Facebook poaches social media regulator Tony Close from Ofcom

Article by Matthew Moore for The Times - published 29 April 2020

A senior official at the watchdog preparing to regulate social media companies has been poached by Facebook to help it respond to the curbs.

Tony Close, Ofcom’s director of content standards, has been heavily involved with drawing up rules to rein in the tech giants and protect the public.

Ministers said in February that they were minded to appoint Ofcom as the country’s first internet watchdog. It is already responsible for TV and radio.

The government is preparing to announce a timetable for legislation but Mr Close will not oversee the regime after accepting an offer to become Facebook’s director of content regulation.

He is expected to be responsible for ensuring the US company does not fall foul of the regulatory system, and for pushing back against any restrictions that it deems unworkable.

A former senior Ofcom official said that colleagues were shocked. “He was obviously privy to all their thinking about online harms,” the source said. “Facebook wants regulation that isn’t going to adversely affect their profits too much, so it’s in their interest to recruit people with inside knowledge.”

The Conservative MP Damian Collins, the former chairman of the culture select committee, said: “We don’t want to see a revolving door between regulators and companies they are seeking to regulate . . . parliament must insist on a proper regulator with teeth who can set standards for the platforms and hold them to account.”

The Times understands that Mr Close, who has worked at Ofcom for 17 years, was put on gardening leave for three months and blocked from accessing its internal systems after resigning last week.

He was one of several Ofcom directors working on online regulation but stepped back from the project after entering job discussions with Facebook, sources said. A spokesman said: “Ofcom has no current role in regulating online companies but we have robust measures in place to manage any potential conflicts of interest.”

Mr Close told the Lords democracy and digital technology committee last month: “There is a benefit in taking people from the sector, and people from the regulator going to the sector at different points in their career.” He also praised Facebook for the steps it had taken to restrict fake Covid-19 news.

He confirmed to the committee that Ofcom had been working closely with the government on online harms legislation. If it is made internet regulator Ofcom will be charged with enforcing a statutory duty of care to protect users from harmful, terrorist and child abuse content.

Mr Close earned £213,000 at Ofcom last year, including bonus and pension contributions. Facebook generated global revenues of $70 billion in 2019.

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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