RICHARD ALLAN, the Lib Dem MP for Sheffield Hallam from 1997 to 2005, now Facebook's director of policy for EMEA, sees himself as a bridge: "The skill set I've developed is to be able to translate the world of policy to people working in technology and the world of technology for people working in policy," he says.
At Facebook, which he joined in 2009, "the thing that has been most interesting for me is the developing debate broadly around freedom of speech and expression online, and the complexity of the issues, and the amount of thought and internal discussion that go into that".
While in Parliament, Allan was probably the only MP who had earned a living as a coder – he wrote management information systems for the NHS. Because the NHS had banned the Internet's TCP/IP protocols in favour of X.25, he remembers getting a CompuServe account, downloading an illicit copy of the first version of Mosaic, and passing it around on a floppy disk.
"I was really passionate about it," he says of the then new technology of hooking computers together to talk to each other. "It makes information more interesting than the sum of its parts."
Once in Parliament, he was the Lib Dem spokesman on technology related legislation: the Data Protection Act, the Communications Act, and, especially, the contentious Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. After leaving, he maintained his government links. In 2008 to 2009, he was appointed by the Cabinet Office to chair the Power of Information Task Force.
Back in 2001, however, while sitting on the Public Accounts and Liaison Committee, Allan began to feel he was missing something.
"I was regulating a sector that I didn't really understand, and I was fascinated by it," he says. "I could see it was growing and something I was passionate about, and as long as I was in Westminster as an MP I was not going to have time to engage with it, so the sensible thing was to leave."
He was promptly snapped up by Cisco as its director of policy for Europe, and joined Facebook in 2009, just in time to confront criticism of the service from child safety activists, who wanted a 'panic button' installed.
"The disagreement was over what are the best solutions," he says now.
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