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Mark Zuckerberg threatened ‘anti-tech’ UK with funding cut in secret government meeting


Mark Zuckerberg on stage at VivaTech in Paris, where he met with Matt Hancock in 2018.

Christophe Morin/IP3/Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg threatened a UK government minister that he might pull investment from the country in a secret meeting that took place in Paris just two months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. The Facebook CEO met with Matt Hancock, who was at the time the UK’s digital secretary, but who has since been promoted to health secretary, in May 2018 at the VivaTech conference in Paris.

What the pair discussed was revealed Tuesday in a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been involved in a two-year battle with the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport after the department tried to block a Freedom of Information request. Following intervention by the Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s data and privacy watchdog, the minutes have now been released, with some parts redacted.

At the time of the meeting, the UK was insisting that Zuckerberg give evidence about Cambridge Analytica at a select committee hearing. In the days before the meeting, Hancock had publicly criticized the Facebook CEO for dodging a meeting with lawmakers. The minutes explain how Zuckerberg only agreed to the meeting “after several days of wrangling” during which he had to be persuaded that the UK was not going to exert further pressure on him to attend a hearing.

The meeting began with “an ambience of guarded hostility,” according to the minutes, but they conclude that the meeting was “positive” and that the UK’s “messages landed well.”

During the meeting Zuckerberg “spoke of an anti-tech UK government” and joked that he might add the country to the list of countries he refuses to visit, along with one other, which in the published minutes was redacted. (At the time Zuckerberg was being threatened with a formal summons to Parliament if he set foot in the country, but as far as is known, Zuckerberg still has not visited the UK since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.)

Facebook has a large hub in the UK, but during the meeting Zuckerberg made the threat to shift its significant funding to other countries in Europe. “MZ [Mark Zuckerberg] said the UK is the obvious territory in Europe for them to invest in, but they are now considering looking elsewhere,” say the minutes. 

The minutes don’t detail exactly what investment Zuckerberg was referring to. But two months later in July 2018, Facebook announced it was doubling its London office space, making room for 6,000 new workstations.

Hancock used the meeting to outline the UK’s plans to regulate Big Tech, which Zuckerberg was reportedly supportive of, even though he was concerned about the government’s “tone.” The digital secretary reassured the Facebook boss that the tone could now shift from “threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working,” adding that he wanted to be able to say he had Facebook’s support at the highest level.

The meeting minutes concluded: “If there really is a widespread perception in the valley that the UK government is anti-tech then shifting the tone is vital.”

“We are completely committed to tackling online harms and have set out tough, world-leading proposals that will make the internet safer for UK citizens,” said a spokeswoman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on Tuesday. “We will outline full details on plans for new regulations imminently that will include tough sanctions for digital firms who do not step up in a fair and proportionate approach.”

A spokeswoman for Facebook said the company has long said that there should be new regulations to set high standards across the internet. “In fact last year Mark Zuckerberg called on governments to establish new rules around harmful content, privacy, data portability, and election integrity,” she said in a statement. “The UK is our largest engineering hub outside of the US and just this year we created 1,000 new roles in the country.”

Damian Collins, who at the time was leading the parliamentary inquiry into the Cambridge Analytica scandal and had summoned Zuckerberg to give evidence said the minutes were proof “Zuckerberg was running scared.”

“It shows how afraid Mark Zuckerberg is of scrutiny that Facebook saw questions about the safety of users’ data on their platform, and how they worked with Cambridge Analytica as an ‘anti-tech’ agenda,” said Collins in a tweet. “I’d be happy to discuss this with Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook Live anytime.”

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