LONDON — In her battle with Big Tech, Theresa May has sent for her lawyer.
The U.K.s newly promoted digital secretary, Jeremy Wright, is a rare winner in the Brexit soap opera. Hes taken the helm at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, following an emergency reshuffle after several ministers resigned over U.K. Prime Minister Theresa Mays new Brexit plan, and joins the digital department as it considers new rules that would clamp down on online abuse, terrorist content and the spread of misinformation on platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Google.
Industry and political insiders say Wright, a former attorney general, has been brought in to turn political rhetoric about policing platforms into concrete regulations.
However, his apparent lack of digital expertise was quickly seized on by critics. Hours after Wrights appointment, his Labour counterpart Tom Watson tweeted: “Congratulations to Jeremy Wright, my third secretary of state at DCMS who is in charge on culture, media, sport and digital. I cant find him on the digital medium of Twitter but Im sure thats just an oversight.”
At the top of Wrights in-tray will be the issue of “online safety” laws and the internet safety strategy.
Gina Miller, the anti-Brexit activist who led the successful legal fight to give MPs a vote on when to start the process of the U.K. leaving the EU against Wright when he was attorney general, is unconvinced he is the right person to tackle online abuse.
His lack of presence on Twitter and Facebook “doesnt bode well,” according to the businesswoman, who has herself been subjected to a raft of online abuse, bullying and death threats. A 50-year-old man was jailed for 12 weeks last year for abusing Miller on social media.
“It is a very challenging time for the digital space so you need someone there who can really have the competency to deal with the challenges in that space and from the little I know of Jeremy I would question if he is the right person to be there doing that job at this time.”
She described him as a “very polite, old school gentleman,” but questioned if he is equipped to take on the battle given, she thinks, that a “new type of social intelligence and emotional intelligence” is needed.
Wright leaves after an emergency cabinet meeting at Downing Street | Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Miller said Wright was always “incredibly polite” during the court case, and that everyone said he seems “very bright,” but added: “I have to say he didnt seem to be as intellectually agile as some people would have expected or I would have expected him to be in that position.”
His predecessor Matt Hancock promised in May that proposals for regulation will be brought forward later this year, without giving much detail as to how they might work.
A government official close to the prime minister but not authorized to speak on the record said May is personally committed to stamping out terrorist content online and tracking down those who use the internet to glorify domestic abuse and misogyny.
“One of the really interesting areas in the DMCS portfolio seems to me how you apply legal regulation in some of those new technologies and that is something that Jeremys background will help a great deal with,” the official said.
“There are some complex legal arguments if you look at the debate on Facebook between whether someone is deemed a publisher or not. The future of social media responsibility and regulation is something that is a very live question in DCMS,” the official said.
Despite spending 13 years as an MP, Wright is surprisingly little-known, both inside and outside Westminster.
Antony Walker, the deputy chief executive of tech industry body techUK, whose annual dinner was one of Wrights first engagements as secretary of state, said the reshuffle and the arrival of a legally trained minister to oversee this chapter of regulation could prove “timely.”
“As we are entering a period where there is a lot more discussion about additional potential further regulation … actually it is no bad thing to have a lawyer as your secretary of state at that stage. Lawyers have a very good understanding of what you can achieve through regulation and what you shouldnt seek to achieve through regulation, and understand the dangers and pitfalls of poorly conceived regulation.”
One figure, who was part of discussions in the department on the issue but declined to speak on the record, said that while Wright would not change tack on internet safety from his predecessor, he would take an “evidence-based approach” to regulation.
Britains Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
Asked by Labour MP Keith Vaz in 2015 about the inability of sites such as Facebook and Twitter to take down Islamophobic quotes, Wright said social media is “not a space where one can act with impunity.”
“Social media providers, and all those who use social media, need to understand clearly that criminal law applies,” he said at the time.
Wright has already faced the conundrum of balancing the rights of individuals to express their views via social media and its potential harms in his previous work on the fairness of trials. Last year he issued a call for evidence over whether contempt of court laws are “able to protect against trials by social media.” He was moved before his office could deliver a verdict.
Despite spending 13 years as an MP, Wright, a former criminal lawyer, is surprisingly little-known, both inside and outside Westminster.
“He comes across as very dull, very workmanlike,” said a Tory MP from the same 2005 intake, who did not want to be named.
Wright has had little time to speak freely on the backbenches. After becoming an MP he was quickly promoted first to the shadow whips office in 2007 before becoming a government whip after the 2010 general election. He spent two years as a junior justice minister and then four years in the relatively low-profile job of U.K. government chief legal officer, appointed by then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014.
Wright has already invited a raft of senior tech leaders to meet him and Downing Street officials in No. 10.
One politician who worked with Wright when he was attorney general said he took the role seriously and played it straight, but had greater ambitions.
“In a sense we may not yet have seen the real Jeremy Wright. This could be the butterfly moment for Jeremy Wright,” the opposition figure said.
A Tory MP supporter of Wright agreed his public persona is “likely to change with this brief.”
“His previous briefs havent allowed him to shine whereas this is a brief to show his character and personality.” The MP insisted Wright does have a sense of humor — “funny rather than flippant” — and has thrown himself into the role as he is “keen to make an impact.”
While Wright is “not best mates with the PM,” three political figures said he has won her trust.
Wright arrives at 10 Downing Street | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The government official close to May described Wright as a “very, very safe pair of hands as attorney general.”
Wright has already invited a raft of senior tech leaders to meet him and Downing Street officials in No. 10 on Wednesday. One industry figure at the meeting said that while Wright is evidently still getting up to speed, he is clearly engaged.
TechUKs Walker acknowledged that a lot has been made of the fact Wright doesnt have much of a digital background, but thinks that as a lawyer “the ability to take a brief and get to grips with detail I think is always useful.”