Nick Clegg's first interview in the metaverse
Step inside the Metaverse as the UK's former deputy PM takes on avatar form to talk to the FT's Henry Mance about the future of technology, immersive digital worlds, the challenges of regulation, and his own role within the company
Henry Mance, Juliet Riddell and Tom Hannen
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If I'm lifting my head because I'm drinking my coffee. And this wretched headset is too bulky for me to drink my coffee without moving the headset. So don't think I'm craning my neck weirdly.
Yeah, some things we can't see. Nick Clegg was the leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats. In 2010 he formed a coalition with David Cameron's Conservatives and became deputy prime minister. Then that fell apart and the Brexit vote happened and Clegg took another bruising assignment at Facebook. Then Facebook became Meta and told us that the future of technology was immersive digital worlds known as the Metaverse. So I was asked to meet Nick Clegg in the Metaverse.
Can I start off... and you're obviously now much more tech savvy.
Hang on, Henry. Before we start, can we just turn around? Look, we have a logo for you, you see?
I just wanted to check that you know that we've provided all corporate accoutrements.
I mean, I think in your politics you had a sort of anti-establishment bent. And does the tech world fit into that?
I think the British political establishment is in deep trouble and I think it's an unreformed set of institutions, which I think are really holding the country back. And I've long viewed social media as being something which in the end is enormously empowering because it allows billions of people to express themselves in a way they couldn't do before without being told what to say, what to think, and so on.
What's the decision you found sort of hardest or that's most brought that home to you?
Oh, I think the Trump decision.
Which Mark asked me to sort of lead on. And I really, really wrestled with that because on the one hand, it seemed entirely clear to me that what appeared on our platform in Trump's name transgressed some pretty basic principles. And there was a very strong case that he should no longer be entitled to express himself on a platform.
On the other hand, whatever you think of Donald Trump, he's the former president of the greatest democracy on the planet. And it is an exercise of considerable power on the part of then Facebook to say, no, you're not welcome on our platform for two years. And what was interesting was that we got roundly criticised, interestingly, by people like Angela Merkel and Macron and others who were saying how... so it's a classic dilemma, which was that if we had not taken that decision we would have been roundly criticised probably by the same people for not acting.
Because, remember, Twitter had said that he was sort of forbidden for life. And yet, in taking the action, we're accused of deploying too much sort of private sector power. And interestingly, by the way, not that you've asked, the most difficult one decision I feel we took in government, which is quite different to what people often expect me to say and it's also the one I probably regret the most, was the military intervention in Libya. I found that absolutely agonising. And I think we got it wrong. I thought we got it really wrong. And it's the one I regret most, actually. Not interestingly enough.
When did you become convinced it was wrong?
Quite a long time afterwards. So I'm not going to pretend it was an instant sort of wisdom, but maybe about a year or so later. And, of course, at that time, I remember, oddly, I remember speaking to Biden about it a lot. And Cameron, obviously, was speaking to Obama a lot. And they were very, very wary of what we were... the French... I mean, gosh isn't that an interesting thing, Henry? To think back to a day where the French and the British take a joint military decision where now we can't even agree on fishing licences? I mean, it's just an amazing illustration of how the world has changed.
I think when you first met Mark and Sheryl, you said the problem is that people think you're too powerful and you don't care.
Yeah. And that remains the case.
But at the same time Facebook wants to be more powerful. And Meta, the Metaverse, if successful, will lead to an increase in Facebook's power over people's lives.
I think the answer as ever with power is to hold it to account. One of the things I would love us to do, and I think we will do this and this is something that I think many people in the company believes is right, is just give users much, much, much more control so the power relationship between the platform and the user shifts much more to the latter. That's the first thing you can do.
Second thing you can do is, obviously, regulate. Put rules in place about elections, about privacy, about data portability, about content moderation. And then the third thing you need to do is devolve things from decision-makers in the company where you can, which is why I think the Oversight Board is so important.
And then the final thing I'd say is I do think there's a considerable potential for the kind of fundamentals of blockchain technology, such that you have a trusted system, but you have no central authority running that system, which is in essence the kind of governance insight of blockchain. I wonder whether that's something actually you could start instilling in the Metaverse. In other words, that you have in the Metaverse forms of governance where precisely the company is not in control and is not appearing like Big Brother over your shoulders.
Do you have an idea of what safety looks like in the Metaverse? I.e. will I be allowed to in some kind of Meta environment walk over and sort of and push you and maybe slap you, like I might do in a pub?
If you're in Horizon as you are now, right? That's run by Meta, that's owned by Meta, it's designed by Meta. Clearly, Meta then has a responsibility to make sure that you and I have got the controls we need to keep ourselves safe. And we have those already, you can literally at the press of a button you can sort of make yourself invisible, you can abstract yourself from a space where you don't feel safe. You can report to content moderators.
But remember, the Metaverse is far, far bigger than the Meta Metaverse. It's far bigger than Horizons. You will move from this space to a different space, maybe run and designed by Microsoft, or by Roblox. The technology of the Metaverse means that you and I will be able to literally create rooms ourselves.
We will need to think really hard about the different layers of responsibility. It's obvious to me that if you're a company that is designing the basic operating system, you have a heavy responsibility for how that operating system works. In the same way that Apple and Google have a heavy responsibility for the way in which Android and iOS work at the moment.
Could you stay another five years here? Another 10 years in California?
No, no, no, no, no. I don't think so.
Not another five years?
I don't know, but I'm such a European at heart. But through the work, I've got no sell-by date, not least because I actually think there's some really big things that I've been working on, particularly this whole new kind of generational regulation that I want to see through. I want to see how this pans out. It fascinates me.
How's the meeting worked out in the Metaverse?
Was this as good as Zoom?
Well, you tell me, Henry. I mean, I run my team meetings every Monday morning here and I like it because I do feel I'm sitting next to you. How do you feel about it?
I feel... yeah. I think as you say, very early, I don't want to use the word prototype, but rudimentary, as you say. I mean, you can see what you're building towards.
That's right, that's right. That's very well put. It's by no means the finished product. Look, we don't even have legs or feet.