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‘Insufficient and very defensive’: how Nick Clegg became the fall guy for Facebook’s failures | Nick Clegg

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On Sunday, Nick Clegg did a succession of interviews with some of the US’s biggest TV news shows. In his role as Facebook’s vice-president for global affairs and communications, he was defending his company after weeks of headlines about its latest crisis – this time involving Frances Haugen, a Facebook staffer turned whistleblower who had testified days earlier before a committee of the US Senate. The story centred on a stash of company documents that Haugen had given to the Wall Street Journal. The central allegation, which Facebook vehemently denies, was that the company had ignored its own research into the harms caused by some of its products in favour of the pursuit of “astronomical profits”.

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Anyone au fait with the five grim years Clegg spent as the UK’s deputy prime minister would have had the familiar impression of someone emphasising his good intentions in almost impossible circumstances. His facial expression regularly expressed a sort of righteous exasperation; his words seemed to imply that if only his critics could grasp the facts, everything would quickly die down. Like any well-briefed politician, he emphasised a handful of statistics: the 40,000 content moderators Facebook employs, the $13bn (£9.5bn) it says it has spent cracking down on misinformation and hate speech; the company’s claim that the latter accounts for only five of every 10,000 Facebook posts.

“With a third of the world’s population on our platforms, of course you’re going to see the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature,” Clegg told MSNBC’s Meet the Press. “Our job is to mitigate and reduce the bad and amplify the good.” He once said very similar things about his party’s approach to going into political partnership with George Osborne and David Cameron.

Frances Haugen testifies about Facebook before a US Senate committee on 5 October
Frances Haugen testifies about Facebook before a US Senate committee on 5 October. Photograph: Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Of course, most people in the US know nothing of his history as a British politician: the brief burst of “Cleggmania” in 2010; his fate-sealing U-turn on university tuition fees; and what the time he spent in coalition with the Conservatives did to the Liberal Democrats. In the US, Clegg is simply a very high-ranking Facebook executive, given the job of facing an increasingly hostile media in the absence of two more important players: Facebook’s founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and its longstanding chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

“When he appears on these Sunday shows, the question is: ‘Who is he trying to convince?” says the American journalist and writer Steven Levy, the author of the definitive book Facebook: The Inside Story. “Clearly, the people who are critics of Facebook aren’t going to be turned around by him saying: ‘Most of what we do is good.’ That argument doesn’t get traction. But people who work at Facebook need somebody going in to defend the company, because Mark and Sheryl have indicated, at least at this moment, that they do not have a taste for publicly defending the company they built.”

The to and fro between Facebook and its detractors looks like exactly the kind of polarised political battle the company is routinely accused of encouraging. Haugen says Facebook knew that Instagram, which it has owned and run since 2012, had a negative impact on the wellbeing of a large proportion of teenage girls, but carried on downplaying its effects. Instagram insists that her material is “focused on a limited set of findings and casts them in a negative light”, while Facebook maintains that correlation does not prove causation. In response to Haugen’s insistence that changes to Facebook’s News Feed algorithm in 2018 amplified divisive content and thereby contributed to political unrest, the company points to a blog Clegg wrote in March, including lines such as: “Facebook’s systems are not designed to reward provocative content. In fact, key parts of those systems are designed to do just the opposite.”

Levy says: “Someone is now presenting a case backed up with a lot of documents. Facebook can quite accurately say: ‘That’s just a selection of documents – they’re being cherrypicked.’ But the larger question is: ‘Is Facebook going to shift the core of its attitude?’ It probably could stem the bleeding if the right words came out of Mark or Sheryl’s mouth. But what I’m hearing from inside the company is they’ve had it with that. When Mark apologises, people just list all the other times he’s apologised. So, at least for now, he’s brazening it out.”

So far, Zuckerberg has only published a Facebook post – which, among other points, insists that the idea “that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being” is “just not true”. Levy says: “Someone’s got to speak for Facebook. And it’s Nick Clegg. So my bottom line is – and this is just supposition – that this job isn’t as much fun as he thought it was going to be.”


The story of how Clegg ended up at Facebook begins with Britain’s 2015 general election, when, after five years as deputy prime minister, he led the Liberal Democrats to a catastrophic defeat. It looked like an existential crisis for the party.

The Lib Dems lost 49 of their 57 seats in the House of Commons, leaving them with only eight MPs. Clegg was one of them, having held on to the constituency of Sheffield Hallam, a largely middle-class corner of the city that nudges the Peak District. The year after, Clegg – a one-time MEP who speaks English, French, Dutch, German and Spanish – reacted with horror to the result of the Brexit referendum. In 2017, he lost his seat to the Labour newcomer Jared O’Mara.

Meanwhile, in the very different environs of Menlo Park, in the Bay Area of northern California, the world’s biggest social media company had hit trouble. After the 2016 US election and the arrival in the White House of Donald Trump, the company was the focus of huge questions about misinformation, polarisation and online political meddling perpetrated by Russia. In the spring of 2018, Facebook was hit by a scandal surrounding the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which had harvested millions of Facebook profiles of US voters. At around the same time, outrage exploded about the role apparently played by Facebook in the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Clegg with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg after joining Facebook
Clegg with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and Sheryl Sandberg, its chief operating officer, after joining the company. Photograph: Sheryl Sandberg/Facebook

The EU was making increasingly loud noises about the power of so-called big tech – and its avoidance of taxes. When the then prime minister, Theresa May, visited the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2018, she got most of the way to accusing the bosses of the big social media companies of standing by while their platforms were used “to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content”. For Facebook, all this noise meant it had to change its approach to the policies that governed its content, as well as its public relations. It also had to prepare for an international wave of government regulation that was, sooner or later, going to break.

In the summer of 2018, Facebook’s then vice-president of communications and public policy, Elliot Schrage (“a bit of a Silicon Valley dinosaur,” according to one tech insider), announced that he was leaving the company. Sandberg and Zuckerberg quickly decided that his ideal replacement would be an experienced politician from Europe. They soon convinced a somewhat reluctant Clegg to fly to California for a conversation with Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. In Levy’s account, Clegg’s opening gambit was blunt: “Your fundamental problem is that people think you’re too powerful and you don’t care.”

One important human element in the story of Clegg’s recruitment is Richard Allan, AKA Lord Allan of Hallam, the former Liberal Democrat politician. Thanks to one of those coincidences that seem to tie together politics and business, he had held Clegg’s former Westminster seat until 2005, before joining Facebook in 2009 and becoming its director of European policy. He says he emphasised Clegg’s suitability for a senior role in conversations with Sandberg and Zuckerberg, and also encouraged his old friend (they have known each other since about 1997) to take the job.

Allan, who left Facebook in 2019 and spends part of his working life developing electric cars, says that being ejected from government left Clegg at a loose end. “He had a little thinktank going and he wrote a book. But I think he was always thinking: ‘I’d like to get my teeth into something.’ He was looking for a job where you make big and important decisions that affect a lot of people.”

Clegg’s appeal to Facebook, he says, centred on one fact: that he would come to Silicon Valley as an outsider. “It was really important to have somebody who could say: ‘That thing you’re doing may seem like a good thing, but when people in Europe hear about it, they’re going to think it’s terrible and slam you for it.’ Nick brings them that outsider’s voice. He’s not a tech utopian: ‘We just build this great stuff and the world’s going to be lovely.’ Nick comes from a much more typical position for European politicians: they’re rather sceptical about technology.”

Clegg is reportedly paid £2.7m a year and lives in a £7m house – complete with a pool, “outdoor fireplace” and hot tub – in the Atherton neighbourhood of San Francisco, often reckoned to have the highest property prices in the US. His wife, Miriam González Durántez, has talked about northern California as a paradise of second chances, saying: “People praise failure here in a way we don’t. It’s so healthy.”

Clegg was approached to be interviewed for this article, but Facebook’s PR team said participating in such coverage was not his policy. Instead, the company sent a set of bullet points for “background”, about why Clegg took the job and how he sees the role.

Clegg and Zuckerberg in Dublin in April 2019.
Clegg and Zuckerberg in Dublin in April 2019. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

That email emphasised Clegg’s work in setting up the Facebook oversight board, a group of 20 high-powered people – including lawyers, academics and Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian – that hears cases about the moderation of content referred to it by Facebook users and makes binding, precedent-setting decisions about them. (Interestingly, the board has just announced that it intends to hear testimony from Haugen.) The company’s spokesperson highlighted Clegg’s work at Facebook around the 2020 US elections, when he “steered [the] company-wide response and public comms on election integrity” and led the decision to pause the running of new political advertising in the week leading up to the election.

This brings us to another of Haugen’s allegations. She says that crucial safeguards that had been put in place to suppress political misinformation and the possibility of violence were quickly removed once voting had finished. “As soon as the election was over, they turned them back off, or they changed the settings back to what they were before, to prioritise growth over safety,” she told the CBS current affairs programme 60 Minutes. As she sees it, this change contributed to the riotous events in Washington DC on 6 January.

A little more than a week ago, Clegg appeared on the CNN programme Reliable Sources and denied – despite evidence to the contrary – that activity on Facebook had been at least partly responsible for what happened in and around the Capitol building. Any such suggestion, he said, was “ludicrous”. He went on: “The responsibility for the violence of January 6 lies squarely with the people who inflicted the violence and those who encouraged them, including President Trump.”

A few moments before, his interviewer had said something that has been endlessly quoted since: “A part of me feels like I’m interviewing the head of a tobacco company right now.”


‘I feel that, in the last two weeks, Nick Clegg’s standing has fallen, in terms of being a credible voice,” says Levy. “In a debating society, his arguments might have some traction, but given this situation where people are seeing this very compelling figure and calling her a hero, to say that this statistic or that statistic presents an alternative point of view to what she’s saying – it’s not compelling. People aren’t buying it.

“My impression of him is that he’s a super-smart guy and he must know that the mission he’s sent out on is not a desirable one – not one where he’s going to change people’s minds.”

Other voices are more sanguine. David Fitzpatrick, the author of The Facebook Effect, an acclaimed 2010 book about the company, says he would have liked to see “a more senior global leader” doing Clegg’s job; just before he was recruited, Kirkpatrick suggested Facebook might do its best to hire Barack Obama. But he says Clegg deserves at least qualified praise. “I feel he’s had a positive effect. I’m critical of him for not doing enough, and I think his interviews recently have been insufficient and very defensive, in a classic Facebook fashion. But he’s the best they’ve got, in terms of having good judgment about Facebook’s relationship to the world. If he weren’t there, my strong suspicion is that it would be even worse.”

It feels as if Clegg is in a similar position to the one he endured between 2010 and 2015 – facing derision and hostility, but doggedly assuring anyone who will listen that things are not nearly as bad as they think. The gargantuan salary and hot tub must help; so too the sense that, whatever he has to explain to the media, he has left Westminster behind and opened up a new chapter. “He’s in a tough position,” says Levy. “But he’s going to come out of this OK. I’m not worried about Nick Clegg. How long’s he been at Facebook now? Three years. His international profile and his profile within are up. Whatever happens, the Facebook experience will have been good for him.”

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Microsoft vulnerabilities down for 2021 • The Register

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Despite a record number of publicly disclosed security flaws in 2021, Microsoft managed to improve its stats, according to research from BeyondTrust.

Figures from the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) of the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) show last year broke all records for security vulnerabilities. By December, according to pentester Redscan, 18,439 were recorded. That’s an average of more than 50 flaws a day.

However just 1,212 vulnerabilities were reported in Microsoft products last year, said BeyondTrust, a 5 percent drop on the previous year. In addition, critical vulnerabilities in the software (those with a CVSS score of 9 or more) plunged 47 percent, with the drop in Windows Server specifically down 50 percent. There was bad news for Internet Explorer and Edge vulnerabilities, though: they were up 280 percent on the prior year, with 349 flaws spotted in 2021.

BeyondTrust commented that analysis had been simplified by Microsoft’s move to the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS), although an unfortunate side effect meant that security gurus can now determine the impact of administrative rights on critical vulnerabilities.

“From 2015 to 2020,” said the report, “removing admin rights could have mitigated, on average, 75 percent of critical vulnerabilities.”

It’s a very good point: keeping permissions to the bare minimum is excellent practice, although difficult to enforce.

The decline in vulnerabilities marks a change for Microsoft. In 2016, the count of vulnerabilities stood at 451, according to the report. By 2020 they had leapt to 1,268. A drop, even if only to 1,212, is a first. It’s just as well since between 2019 and 2020, there was a 48 percent rise in vulnerabilities year on year.

And the trendiest categories are…

The report also drilled into vulnerability categories. Topping the table with 326 and 588 vulnerabilities respectively were Remote Code Execution and Elevation of Privilege flaws, with the latter up from 559 in 2020. RCE was itself down in 2021 from 345 in the prior year.

Explaining the apparent explosion in Edge and Internet Explorer numbers (349 vulnerabilities up from 92 in 2020), BeyondTrust pointed to a consolidation in the browser market and a renewed focus on browser attacks as exploited plugins (such as Flash) were dropped and bug bounties made reporting vulnerabilities more financially attractive. It also pointed out that only six were critical (a record low).

The decline in Windows vulnerabilities was attributed to Microsoft’s efforts to improve the security architecture of its supported products, as was the fall in Windows Server holes. The move from security as an afterthought to something front and center is also a factor, even if it has taken a few iterations of operating systems.

That said, there were some spectacular holes in the company’s products during 2021. Last year’s Exchange Server vulnerabilities, for example, left many administrators scrambling to patch systems. 2021’s stability, from the standpoint of Microsoft’s vulnerabilities, must be considered alongside the rapid rises of previous years.

As the report authors note, simply patching the problems might not deal with the underlying issues. Removing admin rights and privileges also play a part in reducing the attack surface. ®

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Ford’s new car safety tech can automatically reduce vehicle speed

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The new Ford Geofencing Speed Limit Control system alerts a driver when the car breaks a speed limit – then slows down the vehicle.

Speed limit signs may soon be a thing of the past as Ford is now trialling connected vehicle technology that can automatically reduce a car’s speed in certain zones to improve road safety.

Up to 29pc of all road fatalities in Europe, depending on the country, are pedestrians and cyclists, according to a 2020 report by the European Transport Safety Council. Setting up speed limits in certain areas is one of the frontline measures to minimise road accidents.

Future Human

Now, US carmaker Ford is testing its new Geofencing Speed Limit Control system across two German cities, Cologne and Aachen, to see if the technology can help in making roads safer, preventing fines for drivers and improving the appearance of roadsides.

A geofence is a virtual parameter in a real-world area. It is often used by mobility companies and start-ups, such as Ireland’s Zipp Mobility, to identify and enforce low-speed zones in cities.

How does it work?

Ford’s new system uses geofencing technology to alert a driver through the dashboard when the vehicle enters an area with a designated speed limit. It then lowers the vehicle speed to match the limit automatically.

However, the driver can override the automated system and deactivate speed limit control at any time. They can also use the technology to set their own geofencing zones at speed as low as 20kmph.

“Connected vehicle technology has the proven potential to help make everyday driving easier and safer to benefit everyone, not just the person behind the wheel,” said Michael Huynh, manager of City Engagement Germany at Ford Europe.

“Geofencing can ensure speeds are reduced where – and even when – necessary to help improve safety and create a more pleasant environment.”

Ford already has in-built assistance technologies that help drivers ensure they are abiding by speed limits. However, the new geofencing speed limit control system is the first that can automatically reduce a vehicle’s speed without the driver’s intervention.

Eyes on the road

The year-long trial that runs until March 2023 is collaboration between the Ford City Engagement team, city officials in Cologne and Aachen, and Ford software engineers in Palo Alto, California.

Together with colleagues in Aachen, the Palo Alto engineers developed technology that connects the vehicle to the geofencing system for GPS tracking and data exchange.

Germany has more than 1,000 types of road signs, which can often confuse drivers and distract them from the road ahead. Geofencing technologies such as the new Ford system can help drivers stay focused.

“Our drivers should benefit from the latest technical support, including geofencing based assistant systems that enable them to keep to the speed limits and fully concentrate on the road,” said Dr Bert Schröer of AWB, a Cologne waste disposal company involved in the trial.

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Pushing Buttons: Why linking real-world violence to video games is a dangerous distraction | Games

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Welcome to Pushing Buttons, the Guardian’s gaming newsletter. If you’d like to receive it in your inbox every week, just pop your email in below – and check your inbox (and spam) for the confirmation email.

Sign up for Pushing Buttons, our weekly guide to what’s going on in video games.

Remember how, in the wake of yet more awful shootings in the US this month, Fox News decided to blame video games rather than, you know, the almost total absence of meaningful gun control? Remember how I said last week that the video-games-cause-violence “argument” was so mendacious and nakedly manipulative that I wasn’t going to dignify it with a response?

Well, here I am, responding, because the supposed link between video games and real-life violence is one of the most persistent myths that I’ve encountered over the course of my career, and it has an interesting (if also infuriating) history.

Many video games have violent content, just as many films and TV series have violent content (and of course many books, as anyone who has endured a Bret Easton Ellis novel will attest). And it makes intuitive sense that the interactivity of games – especially shooting games – might appear more troubling, from the outside, than passive media such as film. (I gotta say, though, that in 25 years of playing video games I have never seen a scene as violent or upsetting as, say, a Quentin Tarantino movie.)

But the idea that exposure to these violent games turns people into killers in real life is comprehensively false – and it deflects attention from the actual drivers of real-world violence, from inequality to access to firearms to online radicalisation. It is a very politically motivated argument, and one that makes me instantly suspicious of the person wielding it. The NRA, for instance, trots it out on the regular. Donald Trump, inciter of actual real-life violent riots, was fond of it too. Why might that be, I wonder?

First, the facts: there is no scientifically credible link between video games and real-life violence. A lot of the studies around this issue are, in a word, bad – small sample sizes, lab conditions that have no relation to how people engage with games in the real world – but the best we have show either no link at all between violent games and violent thoughts or behaviour, or a positive correlation so minuscule as to be meaningless. A review of the science in 2020, which looked at and re-evaluated 28 global studies of video games and violence, found no cumulative harm, no long-term effect, and barely even any short-term effect on aggression in the real world. It concluded that the “long-term impacts of violent games on youth aggression are near zero”.

This seems self-evident: video games have been a part of popular culture for at least 50 years, since Pong, and violent games have existed in some form since Space Invaders, though they’ve gotten more visually realistic over time. If video games were in some way dangerous – if they significantly affected our behaviour, our emotional responses – you would expect to have seen widespread, cross-cultural changes in how we act. That is demonstrably not the case. Indeed, overall, violent crime has been decreasing for more than 20 years, the exact period of time during which games have become ubiquitous. Though it would be unscientific to credit video games with that effect, you would think that if the generations of people who’ve now played Doom or Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto were warped by it, we might be seeing some evidence of that by now.

It is true that some perpetrators of mass murders – such as the Columbine shooters – were fans of video games. But given that the great majority of teenagers are fans of video games, that doesn’t mean much. More often than a fixation on violent media – of all kinds – mass shooters display an obsession with weapons or explosives or real-life killers, an interest in extremist views, social ostracisation. These are not otherwise well-adjusted people suddenly compelled to real-world violence by a game, or a film, or a Marilyn Manson album.

The history of the “video games cause violence” argument goes back even further than video games themselves: it’s an extension of the panic that flares up whenever a new and supposedly morally abject form of youth culture emerges. In the 1940s, when New York’s mayor ordered 2,000 pinball machines to be seized so that he could performatively smash them up, it was arcades; during the satanic panic of the 1980s and beyond, it was metal music. Since the mid to late 90s, it’s been video games, and no amount of studies debunking any link between them and real-world violence seems to make a difference.

So why does this argument keep showing up? In short: because it’s an easy scapegoat that ties into older generations’ instinctive wariness of technology, screen time and youth culture, and it greatly benefits institutions like the NRA and pro-gun politicians to have a scapegoat. Whenever video games are implicated in a violent event, there is usually stunning hypocrisy on display. After the El Paso shooting in 2019, Walmart removed violent video game displays from its stores – but continued to sell actual guns. Fox News, the TV network that platforms Tucker Carlson and the great replacement theory with him, is happy to point out that the perpetrator of a mass shooting played video games, while remaining oddly quiet on the racist ideas that show up in these shooters’ manifestos.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t examine video game violence at all, or question it. Does every game that involves sneaking up on enemies need a gratuitous neck-breaking animation when you succeed in overpowering a guard? Why do games so often resort to violence as the primary method of interaction with a virtual world? Do we really need more violent media – couldn’t we be playing something more interesting than another military shooter? These are valid and interesting questions. But they have nothing to do with real-world violence.

What to play

‘The most interesting anti-violent video game I’ve played’. This week, we recommend 2015’s Undertale
‘The most interesting anti-violent video game I’ve played’. This week, we recommend 2015’s Undertale Photograph: Toby Fox

Back in 1994, video game magazine Edge ended its review of Doom with this infamous line: “If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances… Now that would be interesting.” Nearly 30 years later, “talk to the monsters” jokes and memes still crop up, even if nobody remembers where it originally came from.

Turns out that reviewer had a point, though, as proved by 2015’s Undertale, probably the most interesting anti-violent video game I’ve played. In this lo-fi role-playing game, you get into fights with plenty of monsters, but instead of battering them into submission you can win them over by talking them down and showing them mercy, which is often the more difficult option. In most games, there’s no question about what you do when a monster turns up in your path: this one makes you interrogate yourself. I interpreted it at the time as social commentary on pacifism and community, and looking back, I don’t think that was too much of an overreach.

Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Approximate play time: 6-10 hours

What to read

  • I’m going to start with a book this time: Lost in a Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do For Us, by Pete Etchells. A researcher and lecturer in biological psychology, Etchells’ perspective on video games is both relatable and extremely well-informed. He looks at the evidence (or lack of evidence) behind all the most pervasive beliefs about video games, and in the end he makes the case that most of the effects that they have on individuals and society are actually positive. It’s a reassuring read that I often recommend to worried parents who don’t play games themselves.

  • Grand Theft Auto V, perhaps the poster child for morally bankrupt video games that supposedly corrupt the youth, has now sold 165 million copies, following its launch on PS5 and Xbox Series X earlier this year. This makes it one of the most popular entertainment products of all time in any medium, and yet strangely, in the nine years since it was released, we have not seen the emergence of roving gangs of teenagers looking to act out their chaotic GTA Online shootouts in real life. Funny that.

What to click

Gibbon: Beyond the Trees review – short, simple and lovely to play

Activision Blizzard’s Raven Software workers vote to form industry’s first union

Question Block

Will return next week. If you have anything you’d like me to answer, just email me on pushingbuttons@theguardian.com!

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