Tony Close, Ofcom’s director of content standards, is set to join Facebook as it prepares to meet the terms of new regulations that he helped create, it emerged this morning.
The Conservative MP Damian Collins, one of Facebook’s most vocal British critics, has called into question whether Close should have been allowed to take on the role.
Speaking to NS Tech, Collins said: “I think given the sensitivities around this at the moment, as the question of regulating tech companies to tackle online harms is a live issue being considered by the government, there should be a cooling off period before people are allowed to leave Ofcom or government departments to take up roles like this.”
Close, who had spent 17 years at Ofcom, has played a central role in drafting new rules to curb online harms. It’s feared that he may seek to use his contacts to lobby against certain aspects of the new rules, which are expected form the basis of new legislation. Ofcom has been earmarked by ministers as the regulator that will enforce the new rules.
“He was obviously privy to all their thinking about online harms,” a former senior Ofcom official told the Times, which broke the news. “Facebook wants regulation that isn’t going to adversely affect their profits too much, so it’s in their interest to recruit people with inside knowledge.”
Facebook has hired a number of senior politicians and regulators in recent years, as calls for stricter regulation of its platforms and competition status grow louder. Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, joined the company as the head of its lobbying and PR team in November 2018. Johan Keetelaar, director of telecommunications at the Authority for Consumers and Markets in the Netherlands, and Kate Patchen, the former head of the US department of justice’s antitrust division, joined the company the following month.
Collins said: “No matter who Facebook poaches from UK regulators, we must not allow them to design the system of oversight for the major tech companies in the UK. We need Ofcom to have independent powers both to set the standards we expect companies like Facebook to meet in tackling online harms, and to check they are complying. Ultimately these decisions need to be taken by parliament and established in law.”
A Facebook spokesperson said that Close had been placed on gardening leave and wouldn’t be joining the company, where he will take on a global role, until August. NS Tech understands that Close’s access to internal systems was removed after he resigned.
An Ofcom spokesperson told NS Tech: “Ofcom has no current role in regulating online companies but we have robust measures in place to manage any potential conflicts of interest.”