Ask Elizabeth Lewis, mayor of Atherton, and she’ll tell you privacy is a “big deal” in her town, which, for the past four years, has been the most expensive zip code in which to live in the United States.
Who better, then, to count among its residents than Sir Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader turned committed advocate for Facebook, the social network whose approach to privacy has drawn criticism around the world.
While Lewis may not have a Facebook account — “too much fake news” she explained — and had not heard of Clegg when asked by The Times, his post-Westminster job is making waves around the world.
Clegg’s transformation from impassioned politician to public relations firefighter over Facebook’s decision to cut access to news websites in Australia has led to the 54-year-old implicitly being accused of selling his soul by one of the company’s early major investors.
“Facebook has long been successful at recruiting top tier players from other industries,” Roger McNamee said. “There is an allure to successful Silicon Valley companies that is hard to resist, especially in combination with giant paychecks. What is not discussed is the need to leave behind one’s soul.”
McNamee, 64, has not met Clegg but knows Facebook’s culture intimately. He mentored its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, helped to bring in the powerful chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and made a lot of money from his Facebook stake before his growing alarm at the rise of “surveillance capitalism” turned him into one of its most effective critics.
“There is an allure to successful Silicon Valley companies that is hard to resist.... What is not discussed is the need to leave behind one’s soul.”
Clegg, who was courted by Facebook and accepted a role as vice president responsible for its reputation with a reported salary of $3.8 million, has not made the same switch.
The politician who pledged to reduce Britain’s wealth inequality as deputy prime minister in a coalition government has made a seamless transition to a paid-up member of Silicon Valley’s upper crust and is now fully identified with everything that Facebook represents.
“You can’t possibly still be in that job and claim any type of ignorance,” said one high-profile Silicon Valley leader recently, in reference to some of the controversies that have dogged Facebook since Clegg arrived.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg were “really charming” people but if Clegg thought he could change the direction of their business “he’s a fool”, the businessman added.
Clegg’s family live in a $9.7 million mansion in Atherton. Set in an acre of land, the faux Queen Anne house built in 2009 has an outdoor swimming pool with hot tub, a sun deck and an outdoor fireplace.
It has five bedrooms, six bathrooms and a dining room that seats 16.
Clegg’s wife, Miriam González, is awaiting her US legal qualification, according to her firm’s website. She is still licensed in the UK, as well as Spain, and before the pandemic would fly between the three time zones.
During lockdown she has cultivated a vegetable patch in the mansion’s grounds and run a charity called Inspiring Girls.
She wrote last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests about how limited the opportunities were in Silicon Valley, California’s tech hub.
“You can’t possibly still be in that job and claim any type of ignorance.”
She wrote: “You can go for days without seeing a single black face on the street.” She added: “The inequality between Mexicans and white Americans is visible and pervasive everywhere. And I’ll spare you my views on the opportunities for women — or lack thereof — in this land of strong alpha males.”
The town is also home to the billionaires Eric Schmidt, former head of Google, and Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook in 2014.
The Silicon Valley business leader said: “It’s the home of McMansions. Most of the top Facebook executives live there. It’s where all the top Google execs live. Every home is gated and they’re all huge.
“It’s beautiful. It has great schools. Everything that rich parents want.”
Facebook recently revealed that it was going to backtrack on a decision to ban Australians from viewing news websites after the Canberra government pledged to force social media networks to pay for linking to the sites. But the fight will rumble on, with Canada considering a similar policy and British politicians making public overtures about the titan’s grip on news coverage.
Lewis, who has lived in Atherton since 1997, told The Times: “I don’t know Nick’s family but that’s not unusual here — privacy is a big deal. I hope he can bring some good guidance to Facebook because I do not trust it, it is so big and with that size comes great responsibility. I don’t have an account and part of that reason is because there is so much fake news on there, I would never get my news from social media.
“If Nick would like to join a council committee then he is more than welcome, we would welcome his insight.”
“There is not much crime here, lots of houses have burglar alarms that connect directly to the police force - we have 21 officers for just around 2,500 households. We spend more than half our budget on the police, if there’s a false alarm the police have keys so will just let themselves in to check it out.”
While the crime rate is low, when burglaries do happen they are significant. Last year a mansion was broken into and $782,000 in jewelry was stolen, with the owners offering a $48,700 reward to catch those responsible.
The town has 7,000 residents. Of the nine schools, six are private.
The explosion in house prices has been driven due to its close proximity to Silicon Valley and also building regulations that forbid building on land less than an acre in size.
Apartments are not allowed to be built on any of the 2,500 parcels of land.
Kelsey Banes, the regional executive director of Peninsula For Everyone, an organization that wants more inclusive and sustainable housing policies in the region around Silicon Valley, viewed Atherton as “an extremely exclusionary community.”
She added: “It’s not expensive by accident.”
Her organization believes that Atherton flouts not only the spirit but also the letter of California’s fair housing legislation. A 1969 state mandate requires all cities, towns and counties to plan for the housing needs of all residents, regardless of income. Yet in Atherton “there aren’t really affordable housing options”.
The many service workers in the town, who clean homes, look after residents’ children and maintain their gardens “cannot afford to live in Atherton or, in many cases, anywhere near Atherton”, Banes said.
Should Clegg and his wife have known all that before they moved in? “Someone who values diversity, inclusion, equity I don’t think would choose an exclusionary neighborhood like Atherton,” she said.
“The peninsula as a region is exclusionary,” she added. “But even within that region Atherton is kind of an outlier.” But it is very private.