Mark Zuckerberg privately threatened to withhold further investments in the UK if the Government did not weaken its stance on regulating social media, documents reveal, The Telegraph has reported.
Previously secret minutes from a meeting with the Facebook boss in May 2018, just after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, record him as warning ministers that his company was “looking elsewhere” due to Britain’s “anti-tech” attitude.
In response, then digital minister, Matt Hancock offered to soften his public criticism of Big Tech and work with Silicon Valley to make sure that any new laws were “proportionate and innovation-friendly”.
The minutes, obtained by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) through a freedom of information request, expose how Mr Hancock sought to mollify Facebook in private even as he condemned the company in public.
They also appear to show Mr Hancock undermining Parliament’s attempts to force Mr Zuckerberg to testify in person about the scandal, which had put the tech mogul at risk of a formal summons were he to set foot in the UK.
According to the BIJ, officials at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) fought for two years to keep the minutes secret, only releasing them after Britain’s information watchdog ruled that they were breaking the law.
Damian Collins, the Conservative former chairman of the House of Commons, DCMS select committee, said: “This shows Mark Zuckerberg was running scared of the committee’s investigation and was actively seeking to avoid being questioned by us about what and when he knew about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“It shows how afraid he is of scrutiny that [he] could see simple questions about the safety of users’ data on Facebook as an anti-tech agenda.”
A spokeswoman for Facebook said that it backs stricter internet regulations and that the UK remains its biggest engineering site outside the United States. Spokesmen for DCMS and for Mr Hancock, who is now the health secretary, declined to comment.
The meeting came during a political crisis for Facebook, sparked by the revelation in March 2018 that its lax data controls had been exploited to harvest private information from 87m people for use in election campaigns.
That April, Mr Hancock warned Facebook that it was “not above the law” and would “not be allowed to shirk
responsibilities to our citizens”. Aides said he had told executives that he would “hold their feet to the fire”.
With the DCMS committee threatening a formal summons, Mr Zuckerberg met Mr Hancock at the VivaTech conference in Paris, joking that the UK was now one of only two countries in the world that he could not visit.
But according to the minutes, Facebook only agreed to the summit after “several days of wrangling” and an explicit promise that Mr Hancock was seeking a “positive meeting” and “wouldn’t simply demand that MZ attended the select committee”.
The minutes continue: “The meeting itself was positive. MZ spoke of an anti-tech UK Government… [he] said the UK is the obvious territory in Europe for them to invest in, but they are now considering looking elsewhere.
“Matt explained that he wanted to use the decision to legislate as a new beginning for UK Government relationships with the platforms – now the decision was public, the tone can shift from threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly.
“He explained that he wanted increased dialogue with MZ so he can bring forward the message that he has support from Facebook at the highest level.
“These messages landed well, and the shift in ambience from guarded hostility to cautious optimism was marked. It is important we follow up this meeting at all levels and continue to engage.”
The minutes also suggest that Mr Hancock distanced himself from the DCMS committee, noting that “in the US they think Damian Collins is a direct representative of Government” and saying that he had given Mr Zuckerberg “s a very brief lesson in the role of Parliamentary select committees”.
In an interview with the BBC several days earlier, Mr Hancock agreed that Mr Zuckerberg should appear before Parliament.
According to the BIJ, Facebook’s then chief lobbyist Elliot Schrage later wrote to Mr Hancock to thank him for explaining “how we can work together on building a model for sensible co-regulation on online safety issues”, and promising more information soon on Facebook’s “commitment to London”.
The BIJ added that DCMS had been criticized by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for refusing to confirm the minutes’ existence for 12 months and for claiming that their release would force it to hold such meetings off the record in future.
A spokeswoman for Facebook said: “Facebook has long said we need 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.