Facebook whistleblower’s testimony could finally spark action in Congress

Facebook whistleblower’s testimony could finally spark action in Congress

Despite years of hearings, the company has long seemed untouchable. But Frances Haugen appears to have inspired rare bipartisanship

The testimony of Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, is likely to increase pressure on US lawmakers to undertake concrete legislative actions against the formerly untouchable tech company, following years of hearings and circular discussions about big tech’s growing power.

In a hearing on Tuesday, the whistleblower shared internal Facebook reports with Congress and argued the company puts “astronomical profits before people”, harms children and is destabilizing democracies.

After years of sparring over the role of tech companies in past American elections, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday appeared to agree on the need for new regulations that would change how Facebook targets users and amplifies content.

“Frances Haugen’s testimony appears to mark a rare moment of bipartisan consensus that the status quo is no longer acceptable,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a non-profit that fights hate speech and misinformation. “This is increasingly becoming a non-political issue and one that has cut through definitively to the mainstream.”

On Wednesday morning Richard Blumenthal, chair of the Senate commerce sub-committee that hosted Haugen the day before, condemned Facebook again in a TV interview, but did not suggest what concrete action Congress should take now.

“I’m hoping there are more whistleblowers out there, and more documents,” the Democratic Senator told CNN’s New Day show in a live interview.

He added: “What she [Haugen] set forth was essentially shows how Facebook is amplifying and weaponizing hate speech, disinformation, but also the anxieties and insecurities of teenagers, particularly girls, negative self image, eating disorders, online bullying, it’s all there and he ought to spend more time looking at the platform.”

Blumenthal called on Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to “come clean” and said he will be called back to Congress to testify once more in due course.

Throughout Tuesday morning, Congress members questioned Haugen about what specifically could and should be done.

With 15 years in the industry as an expert in algorithms and design, Haugen offered a number of suggestions – including changing news feeds to be chronological rather than algorithmic, appointing a government body for tech oversight, and requiring more transparency on internal research.

“I think the time has come for action,” Senator Amy Klobuchar told Haugen. “And I think you are the catalyst for that action.”

Unlike past hearings, which were frequently derailed by partisan bickering, Tuesday’s questioning largely stuck to problems posed by Facebook’s opaque algorithmic formulas and how it harms children. Such issues can unite Congress and there is going to be “a lot of bipartisan concern about this today and in future hearings”, said Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

“The recent revelations about Facebook’s mental health effects on children are indeed disturbing,” he said. “They just show how urgent it is for Congress to act against powerful tech companies, on behalf of children and the broader public.”

However, activists who have been calling on Congress to enact laws protecting children from the negative effects of social media are skeptical of such promises.

“The bipartisan anger at Facebook is encouraging and totally justified,” said Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of the children’s protection organization Common Sense. “The next step is to turn that bipartisan anger into bipartisan legislative action before the year is over.”

Exactly what should be done to regulate Facebook is a matter of debate. Senator Todd Young of Indiana asked Haugen whether she believed breaking up Facebook would solve these issues.

“I’m actually against breaking up Facebook,” Haugen said. “Oversight and finding collaborative solutions with Congress is going to be key, because these systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up.”

Many laws introduced or discussed thus far in Congress take aim at section 230, a portion of US internet regulations that exempts platforms from legal liability for content generated by their users.

While some organizations, including Common Sense, are calling for the reform of section 230, other internet freedom advocates have warned that targeting that law could have unintended negative consequences for human rights, activism, and freedom of expression

“Haugen’s proposal to create a carveout in section 230 around algorithmic amplification would do more harm than good,” said Evan Greer, director of the activist group Fight for the Future. “Your feed would become like Disneyland, where everything in it is sanitized, vetted by lawyers, and paid for by corporations.”

Following the hearing, Facebook disputed Haugen’s characterizations. But the company said it agreed more regulation was in order. “We agree on one thing. It’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet,” said Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s director of policy communications, in a statement. “It’s been 25 years since the rules of the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”

Greer argued that Facebook was promoting changes to internet laws so that it could have a hand in crafting legislation that would largely benefit big corporations.

Other members of Congress have put forward potential paths to regulation that sidestep section 230 reform. Common Sense has called on Congress to pass the Children and Media Research Advancement (Camra) Act, which would authorize the National Institutes of Health to carry out research on the effects of social media on children and teens.

Advocacy groups have also called on Congress for updates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa), currently the primary mechanism for protecting children online.

Proposed changes would stop companies from profiling teens and youth and microtargeting them with ads and content specifically designed to prey on their fears and insecurities.

“Here’s my message for Mark Zuckerberg: your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content and preying on children and teens is over,” Markey, who authored one such bill, called the Kids Act, said. “Congress will be taking action. We will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracy any longer.”

Maya Yang contributed reporting.

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