New document have revealed Matt Hancock backtracked on tough tech laws following a meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Then culture secretary, Hancock promised the “tone” of new regulations would shift after Zuckerberg hinted he might pull plans to invest in the UK.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) obtained minutes from the secretive meeting via a freedom of information request following a two-year legal battle.
TBIJ reporter Matthew Chapman said: “Matt Hancock’s obsequious dealings with Mark Zuckerberg are more like those of a flunkey of Facebook rather than a government minister in charge of regulating Big Tech.
“The government has gone to great lengths to cover up a discussion that has far-reaching implications for British society and democracy.”
The pair met on the sidelines of a Paris tech conference back in May 2018.
Minutes of the meeting show Zuckerberg agreed to the catch-up “after several days of wrangling” and after Hancock’s staff “explicitly assured” his team it would be “positive”.
At the time, the Commons Culture Committee was trying without success to get Zuckerberg to give evidence to MPs.
Hancock had previously said he would “legislate” to impose more duties on social media sites, including for children who use them.
But in private, he appeared to strike a different tone when Zuckerberg complained about his plans.
According to the minutes, Zuckerberg said he “supported UK government policy” but was “worried about tone” coming from an “anti-tech UK government”.
“He said he jokes about adding the UK as the only country in the world he will not visit,” the minutes state.
The minutes add: “MZ said the UK is the obvious territory in Europe for them to invest in, but they are now considering looking elsewhere.”
In response, Hancock said the decision to legislate would mean “a new beginning for UK government relationships with the platforms.”
The minutes state: “Now the decision was public, the tone can shift from threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly.”
Facebook opened a new London office in December 2017, which made the capital the firm’s largest engineering hub outside the US at the time.
A Facebook spokesman said: “Facebook has long said we need new regulations to set high standards across the internet. In fact last year Mark Zuckerberg called on governments to establish new rules around harmful content, privacy, data portability, and election integrity.
“The UK is our largest engineering hub outside of the US and just this year we created 1,000 new roles in the country.”
The government was contacted for comment on Monday evening but has not yet responded.