Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg threatened to pull Facebook’s investment from the UK in a private meeting with Matt Hancock, the bureau of investigative journalists reveals. In response, Hancock appears to offer to water down regulation.
The minutes of the meeting (attached below), from a technology conference in Paris in May 2018, were released after a two-year battle.
- Hancock offered to change the government’s approach from “threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”.
- Hancock sought “increased dialogue” with Zuckerberg, “so he can bring forward the message that he has support from Facebook at the highest level”.
- Zuckerberg spoke of an “anti-tech UK government”, joking that the UK was one of two countries he would not visit.
- The Information Commissioner’s Office found that DCMS had breached Freedom of Information law, including by taking over 12 months to confirm that it held notes of what was discussed at the meeting.
- Government lawyers fought the release of the minutes. After work by lawyers Leigh Day and Conor McCarthy at Monckton Chambers, instructed by the Bureau, the government has agreed to release them.
Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporter Matthew Chapman, who originally requested the notes from the meeting in November 2018, said: “Matt Hancock’s obsequious dealings with Mark Zuckerberg are more like those of a flunkey of Facebook rather than a government minister in charge of regulating Big Tech.”
“It has been a bitter struggle to discover what was discussed at the meeting. The government has gone to great lengths to cover up a discussion that has far-reaching implications for British society and democracy. The entire process raises serious questions about transparency within government and the deference it shows technology companies.”
Erin Alcock of Leigh Day said: “it is of crucial importance that government departments are committed to their obligations under the Freedom of Information Act. The public should know what their government is discussing with powerful individuals and organisations such as Facebook and whether their government is working to protect the rights of individuals over their own data, and their safety and security online.”
The meeting took place at the VivaTech conference in Paris in May 2018, days after Hancock publicly denounced Zuckerberg’s failure to appear in front of MPs. The next month, Hancock had a follow-up meeting with Elliot Schrage, then Facebook’s top lobbyist.
Schrage later wrote to Hancock thanking him for setting out his thinking on “how we can work together on building a model for sensible co-regulation on online safety issues”. Schrage also stated that the “challenges of online safety” should be “achieved in a constructive and collaborative way”, before signing off by saying Facebook was close to providing an update on its “commitment to London”.
The letter also reveals that Hancock was due to visit Facebook in September 2018.
The ICO criticised DCMS for claiming that making public the notes of the meeting between Zuckerberg and Hancock would lead to future discussions “taking place ‘off the record’ and not recorded for fear of potential disclosure”