Sir Nick Clegg lecture: “The end of global internet”

The Shirley Williams Lectures are now getting well into their stride. On Wednesday evening we had the honour of welcoming Nick Clegg direct from Atherton, California USA.

It was the day of Facebook’s AGM, so a busy one for Nick.

I was very impressed by Nick’s lecture, which was delivered flawlessly from notes.

After paying a very warm and heartfelt tribute to Baroness Williams, Nick outlined how he regards 1989 as the key year in his life. The Berlin Wall fell and Tim Berners-Lee invented the Worldwide Web.

These two events heralded a great era of optimism and openness – the EU flourished, the single market was started, the Euro was founded and nuclear weapons seemed as though they would disappear. But that era will probably be seen the exception, rather than the rule, said Nick.

He described how we are now seeing the “balkanisation” of the internet, with ‘various folk deliberately or otherwise closing that openness”.

That great optimism and promise of 1989 has soured. Why is that? – asked Nick.

We assumed only good things of the internet but the dark side has emerged – Russian intervention in the 2016 US elections, the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, Privacy issues, huge companies, Chinese behemoths etc etc

But Nick said that the biggest change since 1989 is with China, who have completely reconfigured the internet in their country, building a wall and creating a powerful surveillance tool.

Populism, Protectionism and National Chauvinism are on the rise.

Brexit is a triumph of populism.

Nick picked out 2008 as a major event when ordinary people saw that the promise of liberal economics was not delivering.

We now have a situation which is the opposite of that heady optimisim of 1989 – the internet is now seen as a threat. Governments are under pressure to regulate, vet and monitor it.

When asked by excellent Chair, Tim Clement-Jones, what his key take-away is, Nick replied that there should be sensible balanced regulation of the internet on a global scale, to minimise its risk, while making sure that it is of positive benefit for years to come.

In the Q&A, Nick was asked about hate speech on the internet. He replied that we need to keep this in proportion. Hateful speech makes up 0.06% of the content on Facebook, he said. Political or “civic” content makes up just 6% of total content, he said. It’s mainly “Babies, barbecues and Barmitzvahs”. Facebook has 80 independent fact checkers andover million accounts are removed everyday for non-compliance.

Several times, Nick made the distinction between the Apple business model and the Facebook/Instagram/Twitter model.

Apple’s model involves the consumer needing to purchase expensive hardware and subscriptions. It is a “rich person’s model”.

However, Facebook/Instgram/Twitter offer their services free and it has to be paid for somehow – which is where advertising comes in. But their facilities are available for people in poverty because they are free, he said.

Nick was asked about whether Facebook’s financial model is based on “flogging people’s data”. At first he said he wasn’t going to get into defending his “current employer” – which seemed odd given all the stuff noted above about 80 fact checkers and 0.06% content which he had outlined previously. Anyway, he proceeded to argue that Facebook never sells data. It’s advertising. He also said that if you press the downward arrow at the top right-hand corner of your Facebook page you regulate exactly what you see on your timeline.

A recording of Nick’s lecture will soon be available for members on the Shirley Williams Lectures website.

By becoming a member, you can enjoy the upcoming exciting programme of lectures.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • I don’t think we need any Nick Clegg fan fiction.

  • john oundle 28th May '21 - 7:12pm

    Did anyone ask Clegg when the Tech companies will pay their fair share of taxes?

  • >Anyway, he proceeded to argue that Facebook never sells data. It’s advertising.
    Nick is definitely a politician – potentially in the same league as Bill Clinton (with respect to his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” defence).

  • I’m afraid Facebook’s responses to their many data breaches is no better the Tories when caught out – deny, minimise, deflect.

    Coupled with their tax-dodging on a massive scale, and the morality of their personal data based business model, it pains me to see a former Lib Dem Leader holding a senior position for them.

    He’s been there a few years now, and there’s no sign that he’s fighting to change things for the better from within. I assume he’s very well paid though.

  • @ Nick Baird. “I assume he’s well paid”.

    It’s on the record, Nick. This supporter of the bedroom tax and ‘welfare reforms’ gets just under half a million (pounds) per annum on which he pays tax in California at 12%. He owns a £ 2 million pound house in London and a 7 million Dollar property in California. He also claimed in excess of £ 100,000 in post DPM allowances in 2019.

  • Forgot to add he also gets a pension for his eleven years as an M.P. and five years as a Minister. I doubt if you’ll see him in Sheffield again (where, you’ll remember, he was required to repay £ 900 in gardening expenses).

  • Matt Wardman 29th May '21 - 10:27am

    What a depressing set of close-minded responses. It reminds me of Gollum on Bilbo Baggins:

    “Thief, Baggins! We hates it, we hates it! We hates it for ever!”

    @John Oundle
    I think that Facebook pay a 2% tax on online turnover under the Digital Services Tax in the UK, whilst the G7/G20 are working out how to to do it worldwide.

    I was looking forward to listening to Clegg on this, as he is at the hub of a number of issues in a difficult position – faced with infinite demands on Facebook including some things which are primarily in the parental role, and a very noisy lobby out to demonise Facebook regardless.

    Unfortunately the link takes me to a page for the Cheadle Lib Dems, who want to harvest my email address and home address, send me an email newsletter and so on, and publish a public profile page in my name. With no opt-out other than for the email.

    For me that is not acceptable, so I have been unable to listen to Mr Clegg.

    The irony is not lost on me.

  • I think fewer personal attacks and more discussion of the subject of Clegg’s speech would be helpful. I, for one, would like to know why social media platforms are protected differently in the US from the laws of libel from traditional media and whether he thinks that should continue. Next, I would like to know if he thinks measures should be taken to force people not to hide behind cloaks of anonymity. I think those two measures would go along way towards correcting some of the problems of hate speech,etcetera.

  • Not a personal attack, Mr Arms, merely setting out the facts. Make of them what you will. On the one hand Sir Nicholas deserves congratulations for being what the late Jack Charlton used to describe as being “a good earner”.

    On the other hand , some folk might suggest that the facts could limit his empathy and understanding that between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, food banks in the Trussell Trust’s UK wide network distributed 2.5 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis, a 33% increase on the previous year. 980,000 of these went to children….. many of them as a result of legislation he voted for when in public office.

    As the former Chair of a Foodbank I don’t hear a lot of talk about “why social media platforms are protected differently in the US from the laws of libel from traditional media”.

    If Sir Nicholas came up with some constructive suggestions on how to deal with the need to supply 2.5 million emergency food parcels to people in crisis in the UK, then I’d be all ears. It’s all a matter of understanding and priorities…… which clearly the Liberal Democrat Party has got into a bit of a muddle about.

  • Reading some of these comments, I wonder if the LibDems are in danger of making the same mistake with Nick Clegg that Labour has been making ever since 2010 with Tony Blair: Rubbishing what you did when you were in Government, and displaying apparent hatred of your former leader is really not a good way to persuade people to vote for you – as Labour has now discovered and rediscovered over the course of several general elections!

  • Jenny Barnes 29th May '21 - 4:09pm

    “New labour” took its historic supporters for granted, and ran a Thatcherite programme while in government. They are currently trying to recreate Blairism, with little success, as those who used to vote for them see nothing worth voting for.
    In fact Labour’s loss of votes in 2010 was probably something to do with the LD success, as many on the left decided to give the LDs a punt as a party that promised to be different. But when the LDs decided to help the Tories back into government, disillusion set in, leading to the loss of many council seats and eventually MPs. The LDs in government looked very much like “one-nation” Tories, and many ex supporters think they were sold a false prospectus and “won’t get fooled again”.
    I don’t think it’s a winning strategy to go into any forthcoming election saying how wonderful the LDs were in coalition with the Tories, but it might work.

  • Paul Holmes 29th May '21 - 8:34pm

    Comparisons between the records of Nick Clegg and Tony Blair can be quite instructive.

    Tony Blair’s first General Election saw a record Labour majority followed by two more GE victories. The most successful (in electoral terms) Labour Leader ever.

    Nick Clegg’s first GE on the other hand saw the biggest net loss of our MP’s since 1970, followed 5 years later by near annhilation from which there is as yet next to no sign of recovering. Not to mention of course the destruction of the Lib Dem’s at every other elected level in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

    I really don’t think the electorate will be impressed by any attempt to big up the memory of Clegg and the Coalition. After all they certainly were not impressed when they experienced the real thing.

  • mike coopers 30th May '21 - 4:07pm

    I think Paul Holmes says it all. The only party to benefit from the coaltion was the tories. Clegg and his acolytes destroyed Charles Kennedy’s brand of progressive social liberalism and the former’s followers are still out there trying to do the same today.

  • John Marriott 30th May '21 - 9:11pm

    I gather that there is strong evidence that, if late arriving postal votes had been counted, there is a chance that Sir Nick might never have been crowned Party Leader. Given what subsequently happened to his opponent, perhaps we owe a round of thanks to Royal Mail incompetence!

  • Who would be a former leader of our party. Not enough to be the first leader to provide us with a degree of political power and to get more of our policies adopted than our minority position justified. The main mistake in coalition was to be fobbed off with AV which the electorate rightly saw as little different to FPP. After that our performance at the following general election was totally predictable. As to his behaviour subsequently, it seems to me that he sensibly went ahead and got himself a real job where he has the opportunity to influence the direction of social media ,rather than go the conventional route of a peerage and a cushy number in the House of Lords

  • James Moore 4th Jun '21 - 12:46pm

    The latest YouGov poll puts the party on 3%.

    I think there is still plenty of scope for both personal and political attacks on Mr Clegg and his toxic electoral legacy.

  • Re James Moore: I certainly don’t suggest that everything we did in Coalition was for the best. At the time it seemed the right thing to do and austerity was accepted as necessary by all parties. In any case, our record is subject to criticism by our opponents without our own supporters putting the boot in. More fundamentally we should learn from our experience to consider how to approach any coalition talks in future. Perhaps best not to lead with populist policies such as tuition fees which make no sense when higher education aims to cater for the many rather than a small minority. More generally, we should avoid any macho posturing and emphasis on our red lines and instead build bridges with the two main parties either of which are likely to be the larger party in any possible coalition in the future ahead of a move to a genuinely proportional voting system

  • Tony Benn joked that he was leaving parliamentary life to “spend more time on politics”. Arguably, In calling for “sensible balanced regulation of the internet on a global scale, to minimise its risk” , Nick Clegg may have more influence in shaping social media policy at facebook than in Parliament. The so called ‘snoppers charter’ was blocked by the coalition but was soon enacted as the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 by the succeeding Conservatve government.
    Conservatives seen to spend little time worrying about past leaders. Labour seems to concentrate its ire on its most successful election winner, Tony Blair and LibDems on the only Leader to have sat in cabinet in the post-war period.
    This pattern has been repeated since the first world war with Ramsey MacDonald as Labour’s bogeyman since the 1930s and Lloyd George the villain for Asquithian Liberals.
    The LibDems remain a party shaped by the ‘New Liberalism’ of the early twentieth century or social liberalism, namely a belief in personal liberty with a support for government intervention to provide social welfare. Jo Grimond positioned the party as a radical centrist, non-socialist alternative to the Conservative and Labour Parties. The modern Liberal Democrat party combines the closely related philosophies of New Liberalism and social democracy or Liberal socialism in advocating a mixed economy within a largely free market based capitalist system. That didn’t change during the coaliton and it hasn’t changed now.

  • @ @ James Moore “The latest YouGov poll puts the party on 3%.”…..

    For the few not the many ?

    Herts Advertiser reported, 19 May 2021, “The Liberal Democrats have become the party of choice for wealthy homeowners, according to new research from a national firm of estate agents. Keller Williams UK found that of the 124 districts, unitary and borough councils of England that took part in local elections earlier this month, those under the control of the Lib Dems have the highest average house prices. The average price in Lib Dem ruled areas is £430,141, a 13.2 per cent rise since 2019’s general election, while the average in Conservative held areas is £283,512 — a -1.7 per cent drop”.

    The Glasgow Herald reported, 3 June, “Sir Nick Clegg has helped bankroll the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ Holyrood election campaign.

    Sir Nick. who now works for Facebook in California, gave an unprecedented donation to the Scottish operation in March. His £10,000 donation was the first substantial sum he had ever made to the Liberal Democrats outside his old local constituency in Sheffield.
    Despite Sir Nick living in a £7m mansion near San Francisco since 2019, the Scottish Lib Dems insisted his donation had been within the rules.UK political parties can only accept a donation of more than £500 from an individual registered on the UK electoral register.

    Scottish Lib Dems also accepted £15,000 in February from alleged arms deal Sudhir Choudrie, who has given over £1.5m to the UK party over many years”.

    @ Joe Bourke “The Lib Dems remain a party shaped by the ‘New Liberalism’ of the early twentieth century or social liberalism”. Used to be the case, Joe, but increasingly rare after 2010.

  • Peter Watson 7th Jun '21 - 4:51pm

    @David Raw “The Liberal Democrats have become the party of choice for wealthy homeowners …”
    I’ve linked to this chap’s interesting work before, but last month, Alasdair Rae updated his UK-wide “deprivation/constituency” chart:

    Looking at Rae’s charts after recent general elections shows a trend of Lib Dem seats concentrating on the affluent right-hand side since 2010, and the prominent red square near the bottom-right corner, Sheffield Hallam (the 9th least deprived constituency), has a particular association with Lib Dems and the subject of the article on this page. It is not surprising that Lib Dems are excited by a by-election in a traditionally safe Tory seat which is the third least deprived constituency in the UK.

    It does make me wonder if there is a conflict of interest between a genuine desire to reduce poverty, introduce a UBI, etc., and the messaging required to be successful in the affluent seats the party targets.

  • @ Peter Watson Interesting you report on that,. Peter.

    Given that the Scottish party received a combined £ 25,000 from Sir Nicholas Clegg and (according to the Herald) “from alleged arms dealer Sudhir Choudrie”, interesting to note the Scottish Lib Dems lost 50 deposits in the May constituency elections, which, conveniently, amounted to £ 25,000. Almost a biblical ‘reaping what you sow’.

    Interesting too that neither Edinburgh West or the St Andrews bit of Fife could be remotely classed as the most deprived bits of Scotland.

  • Peter Watson 8th Jun '21 - 9:28am

    @David Raw “The Liberal Democrats have become the party of choice for wealthy homeowners …”
    In a similar vein, the image in this article ( shows how Conservative success and Labour failure n this year’s English local elections correlates with a measure of deprivation in council wards. It is notable that the only group in which both the Conservatives and Labour lost support is the least deprived 3rd percentile.

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