1 ZUCKER PUNCH
Mark Zuckerberg has finally broken his silence to comment on the Cambridge Analytica affair. In a string of interviews to CNN, New York Times, Wired, and tech website Recode (he knows his audience), the Facebook founder said he was changing the way his firm shares data with third-party apps. He also said for the first time that ‘mistakes’ had been made, including relying on Cambridge Analytica’s claims that they had destroyed data used. Zuckerberg didn’t rule out appearing before either Congress or the UK Parliament, though he didn’t exactly commit to it either.
With its share price hit, Facebook knows that it has to deal with the row to avoid undermining its entire business model. Of course, plenty of media organisations have long complained about the company’s dominance of the advertising market (one tweak to its algorithm and traffic to news stories is affected). But it will be worried by the Times’ front page story that a British group of advertisers (including Unilever and P&G) is threatening to stop using the platform - if it emerges that users’ data has found its way into the hands of brokers and political campaigners without authorisation.
Digital Secretary Matt Hancock was pretty robust on the Today programme, insisting that “big tech companies need to be far, far more transparent about how they use users’ data”. And he had this intriguing (ominous for some) warning: “These rules should be set be society as a whole and by Parliament.” Just as the tech giants have long seen themselves as beyond the reach of local taxes (there is a wonderful Veep episode where a fictional Silicon Valley chief says his firm is ‘post-tax’), they have also been careless at best with data. As it happens, the EU has been proactive on both. Brussels has new tougher rules on data protection kicking in this spring and is now drafting new moves to levy a 3% turnover tax, with a reformed sales tax due further down the line.
Meanwhile, the Cambridge Analytica story is beginning to impinge on domestic politics. No.10 confirmed an ‘approach’ had been made by the firm to Tory HQ to work on campaigns, but swiftly made clear that took place under Cameron and the approached had been rejected under Theresa May’s leadership. Downing Street also told us that CA’s parent company SCL had contracts with the MoD, Home Office and Foreign Office. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson reveals that Boris Johnson met CA’s boss Alexander Nix “on the advice of Foreign Office officials, at a time when Britain was scrambling for routes into the Trump administration”. Alan Duncan and ‘officials in No.10’ also met Nix, he says.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry is sure to want to raise the Johnson connection in Parliament. She has already told HuffPost the Foreign Office has serious questions to answer over another FCO link to the firm. We report HERE that Cambridge Analytica chief Mark Turnbull (caught by Channel 4 News saying ‘I’m a master of disguise’) actually delivered a presentation at an FCO conference on Trump’s use of data in his 2016 campaign.
We report how a later summary of the event by an FCO official Thomas Hoare states “data miners are at the vanguard now”, although he added “this throws up enormous issues about privacy and the use of big data to target individuals”. You can say that again. Still, the jury’s out on whether CA were just snake-oil salesmen (and there are plenty in the world of data and political digital campaigning). Hoare suggests an admirable note of caution among officials after the presentation by Turnbull on his work for Trump: “There was a reservation of judgement by some as to both the unique nature of this approach, and the quantifiable impact of data on the US election. Work to quantify this impact is in train.” The next question is what work was done by the FCO itself.
2. BRUSSELS BLUES
Theresa May is in Brussels. For once, her main focus is not Brexit but garnering more support for tougher measures against Russia over the Salisbury nerve agent attack. A senior Government source appeared to ratchet up the rhetoric, declaring “Russia has shown itself to be a strategic enemy, not a strategic partner.” They added, however: “We are not looking for confrontation or regime change.” No.10 is not expecting new EU sanctions to be approved but it would like a stronger statement of condemnation of Moscow. EU foreign affairs ministers stopped short earlier this week of apportioning blame for the attack and the political risk for the PM is that the pressure eases as our partners wait for the final results from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
On the Brexit front, the EU summit will formally ‘welcome’ (one notch up in diplomatic terms from ‘noting’) the latest progress on a transition deal, though the issue is relegated to a late-night bit of the working dinner. EU council president Donald Tusk summed up the ‘you don’t know what you’re doing’ tone of the 27 when he tweeted “in practice, the transition phase will allow to delay all the negative consequences of #Brexit by another 21 months”. In other words, Brexit will be terrible and the status-quo ‘implementation period’ is just a way of postponing the pain. And he’s one of our ‘friends’. Leavers won’t like that one bit.
The PM will have to weather Tory backbench irritation that our new Blue Passports will be produced by a French-Dutch firm rather than a British one. The Sun (top marks for the ‘Sacre Bleu’ headline) had the story first online but others have followed. This morning Labour’s John Spellar is more angry than any Conservative it seems, dubbing the decision “disgraceful, outrageous and stupid”. “Theresa May should intervene NOW to defend British industry and British workers,” he says. Hancock hinted on Today that things weren’t final, suggesting the contract was ‘not yet complete’.
3. ONE YEAR ON
It’s exactly a year since the awful terror attack that saw Khalid Masood drive his car into five people on Westminster Bridge and then stab PC Keith Palmer to death inside the gates of the House of Commons. None of us will forget watching from the windows of the Press Gallery as Tobias Ellwood and others tried desperately to revive PC Palmer. I wrote this at the time about how Westminster at its best is a real community, far from its ‘private members club’ caricature. Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was so right when he said: “We lost one of our village policemen. This is our village.”
As Speaker Bercow outlined yesterday, there will be a minute’s silence at the start of proceedings in the House today. There will also be a service of commemoration, attended by Amber Rudd and Andrea Leadsom. The other attacks on London, at London Bridge and Finsbury Park, will also be marked today to remember the 14 people killed in total during that dreadful few weeks. The message #LondonUnited will be projected in four locations “as an act of solidarity”, and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said Londoners stand together “united against terrorism and in hope for the future”.
4. MAZEY VAIZEY
Former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has revealed he is seriously considering running for London Mayor – and joked he would “thump” Labour’s Sadiq Khan in any election. Vaizey, sacked by Theresa May when she took over as Prime Minister in 2016, has long been rumoured to be eyeing up standing in the 2020 Mayoral Race as the Tory candidate against Khan.
Our Owen Bennett was at a Brexit and Creative Industries event last night and reports on Vaizey’s bold words. And unlike Zac Goldsmith, he clearly thinks he can beat his opponent without a negative campaign. “Should I say I like Sadiq Khan? Am I allowed to say that? I’m still thinking about running against him…I will obviously thump Sadiq in an election if I choose to stand. When I win, I will continue Sadiq’s work.” Vaizey was an avid Remainer, which may win him votes in London but may totally not help in winning a Tory nomination if Brexiteers go for him.
5. HEAD ACHE
Jeremy Corbyn launches Labour’s local elections campaign today in Manchester and as we saw in PMQs schools cuts are once again becoming a key theme for the party. Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner is already on the warpath, pointing to criticism of her opposite number Damian Hinds by the UK Statistics Authority for claiming that “real-terms funding per pupil is increasing across the system”.
Today, the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has its own annual survey out and it doesn’t make easy reading for Hinds or Tory MPs and candidates. More than a third of school heads say they have had to cut teachers or teaching hours due to the funding squeeze. And nearly three quarters expect to their budgets to be in the red in the coming year as Government cuts continue to bite.