• Nick Clegg explains his role as president of global affairs at Meta.
  • And he sets out his vision of the metaverse and why we must ensure that people can travel in it freely and not be stuck in a 'splinterverse'.
  • He spoke to the Radio Davos podcast at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2022.
  • Susbscribe to Radio Davos here.

The metaverse was very visible at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos this year, with tech giants Microsoft and Meta both presenting their own demonstrations of what it looks, sounds and feels like to be in a virtual reality or augmented reality world.

Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister of the UK and now president for global affairs at Meta - the company formerly known as Facebook - gives his view on what the metaverse will do for us and explains why it is important to ensure that users aren't locked in to any one company's metaverse ecosystem.

What is the metaverse, and who will run it? Meta's Nick Clegg talks to Radio Davos

Robin Pomeroy: I'm delighted to welcome to Radio Davos Nick Clegg. Nick, how are you?

Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta : I'm very well.

Robin Pomeroy: You became 'president of global affairs', with senior seniority right at the top of the company, a few months ago. What does that mean? And what is it that you actually do these days?

Nick Clegg: So as [Meta CEO] Mark Zuckerberg explained at the time, it's a big company, it's erupted in size in the last decade and a half - as he explained at the time, he wants to very much devote his time to, most especially, to the huge engineering task of helping to build this new computing platform, the so-called metaverse, and really wants to, quite rightly, focus his energies on that. Sheryl Sandberg, COO, is very much focussed on the commercial side of things. And you know, we're facing more competition than we ever have before. And as Mark explained, he's asked me to really deal with, in a sense, the rest. What I mean by 'the rest' is all the major regulatory policy and other issues that the company faces.

And that that ranges from me being the sort of senior decision maker on some of those difficult issues, like where do we draw the line between free expression and content that we take down? How do we operate our platforms at the time of elections? Through to talking to people and policymakers and regulators about our plans for the metaverse, talking to regulators and legislators around the world as they introduce new rules for the internet.

So that, in a nutshell, is the sort of division of labour, if you like, which Mark Zuckerberg explained at the time. And yeah, it's a very interesting challenge, which certainly keeps me very busy.

Robin Pomeroy: I really want to talk about the metaverse, Meta and the metaverse. But before we do that, I want to fire a kind of a potentially regulatory question to you. In January, we had an episode of Radio Davos where I interviewed Stuart Russell, professor, expert of artificial intelligence, and his position is that the algorithms, social media algorithms have learned to manipulate people, to change them so that in future they're more susceptible and they can be monetised at a higher rate. That's quite an assertion. Do you agree with it?

Nick Clegg: It's an assertion which is often made and very rarely proven for the very good reason that's not what our algorithms do. It's certainly a sort of fashionable narrative, isn't it, to say that companies like Meta, but we're not alone, the accusation is that we use algorithms to sort of craftily spoon-feed extreme and hateful content to people to keep them hooked on our services, because that's the way that we can sell ads and so on. Really, every link in that chain is wrong.

Actually, what algorithms do - if you took our algorithms away, what is the first thing you'd see more of on Facebook? You'd see more misinformation, more hate speech, because our algorithms, actually, amongst other things, act as great big sort of swimming pool filters, if you like, trying to filter out, identify and demote exactly the kind of content we don't want to promote.

And by the way, for those who keep alleging, and I don't know whether this good professor did so, but it is often alleged, that we have a commercial incentive to do so ...

We don't want [hateful content]. The people who pay our lunch, the advertisers, don't want it. And, crucially, we know from our own research that users don't want it.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

Robin Pomeroy: He did, by the way.

Nick Clegg: Yes, exactly.

Robin Pomeroy: He didn't mention you by name but...

Nick Clegg: No. But I can imagine the narrative because it's an oft repeated one. But if you actually think about it, our commercial incentive is the reverse. Because why would any advertiser who's placing ads online want their ad for soap powder next to a piece of hateful or extreme content?

So we don't want it. The people who pay our lunch, the advertisers, don't want it. And crucially, we know from our own research that users don't want it.

And look, don't just take my word for it. We now do something which no other social media platform does. We publish every 12 weeks statistics on how we're doing in algorithmically and otherwise identifying and suppressing or sometimes even removing this kind of nefarious content.

And we have submitted - no one's done this before - we've submitted our data, which, for instance, shows that the prevalence of hate speech is now down to 0.03%. That means for every 10,000 bits of content you'd see if you constantly scroll on Facebook, you'd see three bits of hate speech. I wish it wasn't three. I don't think it's ever going to get down to zero, but it's much, much lower than it was before. And we've submitted that data to an independent audit. Independent auditor EY has audited it and verified that these are sound statistics.

So I don't candidly believe that this, however often repeated it might be, this narrative of how algorithms work on social media really withstands much scrutiny.

That said, I do think companies like Meta, it is an obligation on us, and we haven't yet done as much as we no doubt will in the years ahead. We do need to explain algorithms better, make them more transparent, give users more control over how, you know, at the moment there is a, you can literally with a swipe of your thumb you can turn off the algorithm and only see the content of your news feed presented to you chronologically. But I do think we'll need to do more of that because transparency really is the best way to kind of dispel some of the mythology that has already grown up around algorithms.

Robin Pomeroy: Okay. From algorithms to Meta. A lot of people had never heard the word 'metaverse' before Facebook became Meta. So what is the metaverse and what will we be doing in it in one year, five years, 10 years' time?

Nick Clegg: Well, the metaverse is in many ways - it sort of sounds a bit like science fiction, but it's also actually a fairly, almost logical evolution in the trajectory of the internet.

If you think, you know, we used to have desktops and then we had laptops and we migrated from laptops and we all walk around clutching a phone in our clammy hands. And then we went from text to photographs and photographs to videos. And now video is now by far - short form videos, in particular - a hugely popular way by which people communicate and share things. About 50% of the content on Facebook is video already.

And all of that is a move towards greater, almost lifelike embodiment. And the metaverse is the sort of natural extrapolation of that where over time, you and I would be able to put something on the bridge of our nose - not heavy goggles - there'll be glasses then, maybe even something around your wrist to provide more computing power. And we'd be able to talk to each other as holograms, really feeling that we are sitting in the same space even though we're not physically there. So this real sense of embodied presence.

The audio technology's so great [in the metaverse], you really do feel that you don't need to raise your voice like people do when they're speaking at a flat screen full of people on Zoom.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

And it's remarkable. It sounds very futuristic, but it's remarkable how much progress has already been made in filling out this dream. I for instance, for several months now, I've been holding my weekly team meetings with my team around the world in the metaverse. Now, we don't look like holograms. We look like, we have a sort of slightly cartoon avatar representations of ourselves. I look suspiciously slimmer and younger, and that's the avatar I've chosen for myself. So you can provide quite a flattering description of yourself. But it nonetheless provides a remarkably lifelike experience because particularly the audio technology's so great, you really do feel that you don't need to raise your voice like people do when they're speaking at a flat screen full of people on Zoom or other other technologies presented to you in those passport squares.

So the idea is of an embodied presence. And if you can imagine what can be done with that technology in the future, it would obviate the need for mass commuting into offices, because we'd be able to work together as if we were offices together without having to commute physically.

It would allow teachers to take a class of 12-year-olds to walk around ancient Rome. It would allow a surgeon to educate a group of budding medical students on how to do surgery as if as if they're right there in the lab.

We can have the ethical, moral, societal, regulatory debates now rather than bolting them on as an afterthought, which is what we've done with the first kind of wave of the internet.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

I think the applications really are very exciting. But you ask in one, five, 10 years. This is a long journey. This is not going to happen overnight. And I think the exciting thing certainly for people like me is that we can have the ethical, moral, societal, regulatory debates now rather than bolting them on as an afterthought, which is what we've done, if you like, with the first kind of wave of the internet, I think we can have those debates, the technological engineering and the kind of ethical, regulatory debates in parallel that will bode well for the future.

Robin Pomeroy: You set out a lot of these things in this essay that I'm holding in my hand here, 'Making the metaverse: What it is, how it will be built, and why it matters'.

Nick Clegg: I'm glad and impressed you got through it.

The ambition of Meta and Mark Zuckerberg is not to create some sort of empire in the sky which will be owned by Meta and and governed by one company. Far from it. The metaverse will come into being, regardless of whether we as a company are pinning our colours to it or not.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

Robin Pomeroy: Bedtime reading last night! One of the things I found very interesting, one of the many things, was this idea - I think when Facebook became Meta, some people thought, right they're going to be the metaverse, that's it. And the point you make very strongly here is the interlinking of the various metaverses. Could you give us some explanation of how you see the architecture, you've even built a little diagram in there? Could you talk us through that?

Nick Clegg: Yes. And that is terribly important. Everyone should breathe easily. The ambition of Meta and Mark Zuckerberg is not to create some sort of empire in the sky which will be owned by Meta and and governed by one company. Far from it. The metaverse will come into being, candidly, regardless of whether we as a company are pinning our colours to it or not. We are just going to be one of many companies who are investing heavily in the technology, you know, so is Microsoft, and Google, and Apple and so on.

And I think here's the thing. It won't be a one thing.

You know, no one talks about the 'Google Internet' or the 'Microsoft Internet'. There are certainly only at the moment a couple of operating systems, iOS and Android. I actually think that the metaverse could become a slightly more diverse sort of patchwork, if you like, of operating systems upon which then - like different floors in a building - upon which then different companies will build different experiences, either sort of worlds and experiences which people can join in a semi-public space or places where you and I could book a room and have a private conversation. It might be held on the server of Meta, but it will be very much a private space which doesn't really belong to anyone other than ourselves.

The key thing to consider now early on, before facts are already laid, baked into the cake of the technology, is to make sure that that patchwork quilt doesn't become too segmented, so that as a user, you can move from one part of the metaverse to the other.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

And to your question, I think the key thing to consider now early on, before facts are already laid, baked into the cake of the technology, is to make sure that that patchwork quilt doesn't become too segmented, so that as a user, you can move from one part of the metaverse to the other.

You know, I'm an Arsenal fan. I doubt it's going to happen, but I very much hope Arsenal today will will qualify for the Champions League. And I would then want to buy a celebratory Arsenal shirt in the metaverse and I'd want to go from one part of the metaverse to the other, maybe go with some friends to hear some music or go with some friends to a discussion group.

And I think it will be key for users to be able to move seamlessly from one part of the metaverse to the other. And for that, you will need a complex but essential web of rules, standards, interoperable interfaces, which may be forged by the industry, by standard setting bodies, possibly by regulators as well.

The promise of the metaverse could be squandered by what may turn out to be a 'splinterverse'.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

And it's one point which I think is crucial, because if we don't do that, I think the promise of the metaverse could be squandered by what may turn out to be a 'splinterverse'. People talk about the 'splinternet', which is certainly a real risk. I think there is equally a real risk if we're not attentive to this, that you see in the future, in many years to come, a splinterverse. And that would be a great shame.

Robin Pomeroy: It's quite different from what we have now. We have the World Economic Forum Podcast Club on Facebook - which I urge everyone to join - but you have to be on Facebook to get there. What you're saying, in the metaverse you could still have that, but you could also have something where people could arrive in that room and that discussion group from different parts of the metaverse or the internet.

I think we should allow users and empower users to move more easily from the Meta metaverse to the Apple metaverse, the Microsoft metaverse in the future.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

Nick Clegg: Correct. I think we are already in danger in the current set up on the internet to have too many sort of walled gardens. I'm not doing this to throw them under the bus, but if you look at the kind of walled garden of Apple - was highly successful - they sell the fancy hardware, they run the operating system, and now they also sell you the services, the music, the television. So there's a huge pull for people to be locked into that kind of Apple world and not and not escape from it. And I don't think we should repeat that mistake in the metaverse. I think we should allow users and empower users to move more easily from the Meta metaverse to the Apple metaverse, the Microsoft metaverse in the future.

Robin Pomeroy: And in a meeting like this [Davos 2022], is that the kind of thing that will be discussed? You'll meet people from senior positions from those companies. You're going to meet regulators from all over the world and politicians. Are those discussions happening now to say, okay, we need to get together to ensure this will be interoperable, or start the conversation going on that?

Nick Clegg: Yes. And the World Economic Forum is playing a really, I think, really important catalytic role, which is that as will be announced this week, the World Economic Forum is hosting and running a forum which will bring together academics, thinkers, regulators, online safety experts, people like me from Meta, my counterparts from Google, Microsoft, and smaller companies too, to start having this conversation, because, candidly, we're only just starting to have the conversation, which is principally my motivation for writing this piece, which is to sort of start trying to get the ball rolling in these kind of discussions. And I think it's great that the World Economic Forum is helping to kind of host that discussion, because that's the kind of thing we need if we're going to anticipate the need for those rules in the years to come.

Robin Pomeroy: In the metaverse, are the risks that are already there in the internet as we know it today, of hate speech, bullying, privacy problems, perhaps government surveillance, all these risks that are there, will that be greater for any reason in the metaverse?

One concern I have is that people think that the solution to those legitimate concerns about safety, about unpleasant content, and so forth, is to just copy and paste the rule book that either governments or regulators or companies such as ours have developed over the years to keep people safe on our platform. Because it's a very different way of communicating.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

Nick Clegg: Clearly, you'll always have those issues with any sort of technological communication. But I think it's very important to remember how different this technology will be to what we're used to. And one concern I have is that people think that the solution to those legitimate concerns about safety, about unpleasant content, and so forth, is to just copy and paste the rule book that either governments or regulators or companies such as ours have developed over the years to keep people safe on our platform. Because it's a very different way of communicating.

When you post on Facebook, it's there. It stays there. People share it. It circulates. It goes viral on the internet. Communication in the metaverse, not exclusively, but overwhelmingly, will be much more like everyday life - ephemeral - you say it and then it disappears. No one keeps a record of it. And you wouldn't, in a sense, want either the government or Mark Zuckerberg or any regulators peering over your shoulder, monitoring every word you say in real time, just as you wouldn't want that when you just having a chat with a mate in a pub.

One of the cornerstones of freedom is that we can sort of talk nonsense to each other in privacy, in our own living rooms or in other places where we congregate. And I think particularly for those private spaces in the metaverse, that's the way you need to think about it. I think in the more public spaces, the more open places where people congregate, I think that the rules will be a little bit more familiar to or will feel a little bit more familiar to what we have now. But I think if there's private spaces, you know, five people get together to play chess and one of them has got some seriously odious political views that might, if he expressed them on Facebook, would fall foul of our rules. You wouldn't want Facebook charging in and saying, oh, no, you can't say that, while you are just moving the knight up chess board.

So we'll need to construct a different conceptual framework by which we decide who is responsible to monitor and enforce those rules at what level of the stack. I referred earlier to this picture, like the floors of a house, and I think the responsibilities will lie with different entities at different levels of that stack.

There's a danger that we might look back in 10 years' time and think that this is actually the high point of the open global internet [...] because we take it for granted. And once it's gone, I think we will we will lament its loss.

—Nick Clegg, President for Global Affairs at Meta

Robin Pomeroy: Is there anything you'd like to see, either in your own domain or in the wider world, that's being discussed here, that you'd like to see come out of this Annual Meeting at Davos?

Nick Clegg: When it comes to the metaverse, you mean?

Robin Pomeroy: You can pick that and/or anything else.

Nick Clegg: I think like everybody here, the horrific bloodshed and conflict in Ukraine looms large, you know, larger than anything else. So I, like everybody else, will be listening out for people who've got insights into that conflict.

And of course, it takes place at a at a time when the early promise of a seamless, borderless, globalised economic order is is fraying at the edges. And one of the great ironies of our age is that technology and economics pushes towards globalisation, but politics and conflict propel society in the opposite direction.

And you can see that in the internet. There is a real danger, as I said earlier, that the internet is fragmenting, is balkanised, and you have a Chinese internet, you have a Russian internet, even Turkish internet, you have a Vietnamese internet. I think there's a danger that we might look back in 10 years' time and think that this is actually the high point of the open global Internet. So I will certainly be listening out, particularly for decision makers, to hear how committed they are to try and really keep data flows open to the global internet because we take it for granted. And once it's gone, I think we will lament its loss. We really will.

Robin Pomeroy: Nick Clegg, president for global affairs at Meta, thanks for joining us on Radio Davos

Nick Clegg: Thank you.

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