Facebook Whistleblower Testimonial Creates Momentum for Stricter Tech Laws
WASHINGTON – Facebook Inc.
Whistleblower Frances Haugen testified in Congress Tuesday on internal documents showing the damage caused by the company’s products – from adolescent mental health issues to the poisoned political debate – adding fuel to efforts to pass stricter regulations on the Big Tech.
“I have seen Facebook repeatedly encounter conflicts between its own profit and our security. Facebook has consistently resolved these disputes for its own benefit, ”Haugen told a Senate consumer protection subcommittee. “As long as Facebook operates in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is not accountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook won’t change.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What actions, if any, should the Senate Commerce Committee take on Facebook? Join the conversation below.
Ms Haugen criticized Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, citing his control over the company. Mr. Zuckerberg controls about 58% of Facebook’s voting shares, according to an April regulatory filing.
“There is currently no one holding Mark accountable other than himself,” she said. Facebook, under Mr. Zuckerberg’s leadership, is making decisions based on how they will affect user engagement metrics, rather than their potential inconvenience to the public, she said.
“Mark has built an organization that is very metrics driven,” she said. “The metrics make the decision. Unfortunately, that in itself is a decision.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Connecticut), chairman of the subcommittee responsible for Tuesday’s hearing, called on Mr. Zuckerberg to appear before Congress to testify, calling the company “morally bankrupt.”
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statements made to Mr. Zuckerberg. The company has previously challenged the qualification of the documents in the Journal and by Mr. Blumenthal and other members of his committee, who questioned Facebook executive Antigone Davis about the documents last week.
In a statement following the hearing, Facebook questioned Ms Haugen’s knowledge of the issues raised in the documents she leaked, calling her a low-level employee who is unaware of the process decision-making of senior executives.
“We agree on one thing; it is time to create standard rules for the Internet, ”the statement read. “Instead of expecting the industry to make corporate decisions that belong to lawmakers, it’s time for Congress to act.”
Facebook said it plans to continue doing internal research and is working on ways to make this work accessible to others. The company recently battled with university researchers for access to its data.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the hearing renewed calls for regulation, such as strengthening privacy and competition laws and special online protections for children, as well as strengthening platform accountability. One idea that received particular impetus was to demand more visibility into social media data as well as the algorithms that shape user experiences.
“I think now is the time to act and you are the catalyst for this action,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.).
Ms Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who resigned in April, said lawmakers need to move beyond some of the legislative remedies being considered.
“The severity of this crisis demands that we break with previous regulatory frameworks,” she said. “Changes to outdated privacy protections… won’t be enough. “
A good place to start, she added, would be “full access to data for research not led by Facebook. Based on this, we can develop sensible rules and standards to tackle consumer harm, illegal content, data protection, anti-competitive practices, algorithmic systems, etc.
In a previous statement, Facebook said: “It is not correct that leaked internal research shows that Instagram is ‘toxic’ to teenage girls.”
“Research has actually shown that many teens we heard from felt that using Instagram helps them when they are dealing with the kind of difficult times and issues that teens have always faced,” said he declared.
The Journal defended its series, saying Facebook had not identified any factual errors.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Ms Haugen also raised national security concerns about Facebook, citing foreign surveillance on the platform – for example, Chinese surveillance of Uyghur populations – and what she called Facebook’s “constant understaffing” of its counterintelligence teams.
She said she was “talking to other parts of Congress about it.” The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr Blumenthal said his committee may request more information from Ms Haugen on security issues.
Facebook’s chief security officer Nathaniel Gleicher responded to the security concerns with posts on Twitter.
“One of the reasons the public knows the magnitude of efforts like this by China, Iran and others is because we pulled them out and publicly reported on them,” he wrote. “We know threat actors will target all public platforms. It is essential that we all * take * this threat seriously and work to counter these actors. ”
Ms Haugen has advocated for policy changes to address her perceived concerns. In products like cars and cigarettes, she said, independent researchers can assess health effects, but “the public can’t do the same with Facebook.”
“This inability to see into real Facebook systems and confirm that they are working as directed, it is as if the Department of Transportation is regulating cars by just watching them drive on the freeway,” she said. , advocating for an independent government agency that would employ experts to audit the impact of social media.
She said if Congress decides to amend Section 230, a federal liability law that protects Facebook and other businesses from liability for user-generated content, it should distinguish between that type of content and the choices businesses make about the type of content to promote.
“Facebook should not let go of the choices it makes to prioritize virality, growth and responsiveness over public safety,” she said.
Ms Haugen was hired by Facebook two years ago to help protect against election interference on Facebook. She said she acted because she was frustrated with what she saw as Facebook’s lack of openness to the platform’s potential for harm and its reluctance to address its flaws.
Ms Haugen has filed a whistleblower with the Securities and Exchange Commission, advising regulators of potential violations of investor protection laws and making her eligible to receive a share of the fines collected in future enforcement action. She is also interested in cooperation with state attorneys general and European regulators.
Several lawmakers have also expressed renewed interest in transparency measures that would give the public and policymakers a better understanding of how algorithms work to suggest content to users.
“I would just say, let’s get to work,” said Senator John Thune (R., SD), who has sponsored several algorithm transparency measures. “We have things we can do here.”
Other suggestions from lawmakers on Tuesday included crafting comprehensive privacy protections for U.S. consumers and new competition rules for the internet age. Some senators have also lobbied to reduce the immunity from liability that Congress long ago granted to online platforms for the actions of their users.
But several lawmakers have acknowledged that some efforts to regulate big tech have already met with stiff opposition from some big companies. “There are lobbyists on every corner of this building who have been hired by the tech industry,” Ms. Klobuchar said. “Facebook and the other big tech companies are throwing a lot of money in this city and people are listening to them.”
Facebook has publicly called on the government to take action to better regulate the online environment.
“There are still reasons to be skeptical” about the Congressional consensus on the legislation, Mr Blumenthal said after the hearing. But he added that “there are times when the dynamic is so powerful that something actually gets done … I have rarely, if ever, seen the kind of unanimity displayed today.”
—Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8