Ministers are worried that plans for more regulation of social networking sites could be leaked to civil servants by former mandarins working for Facebook.

A senior executive from Facebook raised the alarm after an online harms issue that was only known to a few people in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Mark Zuckerberg’s social-media colossus is under increasing pressure due to misinformation and harmful content, including abuse, being shared by its users. Ministers are preparing plans for tighter regulations. 

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is supposed to scrutinize jobs taken by former senior civil servants from the private sector. Its powers are weak, and it is not able to vet more junior appointments. 

A source lashed out at department mandarins, telling the Times:  ‘The problem is that DCMS officials think it’s their job to work there for four years then get a job at Facebook.

The alarm was raised after an online harms issue known only to a few people at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was raised by a senior executive at Facebook in a recent meeting.

A senior executive from Facebook raised the alarm after an online harms issue that was only known to a few people in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Nicola Aitken

Farzana Dudhwala

Nicola Aitken (left),who formerly ‘led UK Government efforts to counter disinformation’ is now working at Facebook, as is Farzana Dudhwala, who previously worked for the Government Office for Artificial Intelligence. There is no evidence that either of them received information from or solicited it from ex-civil Service colleagues.

Acoba doesn’t scrutinize them except at the highest level.

Several DCMS officials have gone on to work for Facebook recently, after working elsewhere before joining Facebook. It is not known if they have sought information from ex-members of the Civil Service. 

Nicola Aitken was previously the UK Government’s Counter Disinformation Coordinator. She is currently working at the UK Government after spending a year at Full Fact, an independent organization that exposes misinformation online.

And Farzana Dudhwala has been Facebook’s privacy policy manager since January, having spent a year in 2018-9 at DCMS’s Government Office for Artificial Intelligence and then two years at the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

Julian Knight, Conservative chairman on the DCMS select Committee, stated to the Times: “Any perceived cosiness among the likes of Facebook, civil servants, has the potential of undermining the new online harms legislation and regulatory regime. 

“This is too important to do anything else than by the book. Ministers should take this seriously, I’m sure. 

The Online Safety Bill would place a new legal duty on social media giants to protect UK users against harmful material.

However, regulators are concerned that firms will be permitted to automate the process. This would effectively give power to ‘unaccountable’ AI that can’t be ‘challenged or checked’.

Meanwhile more than 50 Conservative MPs have demanded social media verify the identification of their users in a bid to stamp out abuse.

Backbenchers wrote to Facebook, Twitter TikTok Reddit, Snapchat, and Facebook to ask them to do more to combat harassment.

A letter was sent by Meriden MP Saqib Bhatti to urge firms to verify identity before signing up.

This 51-member group, which includes former Cabinet ministers Andrea Leadsom, Damian Green and Karen Bradley, believes it would make it easier for abusers to be tracked down and permanently ban them off platforms.

‘The inaction by social media companies like yours to take decisive action to tackle online abuse has meant that you have become enablers of abuse which rots away the very foundations of our society,’ they wrote.

‘There is no doubt that social media has become an invaluable part of our lives and has transformed our world. It unites people, empowers people and improves the lives across the globe.

‘During the pandemic, social media was a lifeline connecting us to our loved ones and to the rest of the world. Social media offers politicians another way to communicate with their electorate. It has fundamentally changed how we work.

‘However, there are those who use social media and online platforms to commit abhorrent abuse and they do so in the knowledge that little or no action will be taken against them.

‘Despite numerous calls for change, it is our view that insufficient steps are being taken to address this.’