Facebook whistleblower tells Congress how to regulate technology

WASHINGTON, DC – US lawmakers have been angry with Facebook for years. Since as early as 2011, they’ve been sounding alarms about Facebook Failed to protect users’ privacyand its struggles to combat misinformation on its platforms and data Impact on the mental health of its users. But they have not issued any new laws that address these issues.

Now, some key lawmakers say they have the incentive they need to make real change: whistleblower and former Facebook employee Francis Haugen.

Haugen, who was the company’s director of products, testified before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security Tuesday in what lawmakers described as an urgent call to action to regulate Facebook. The whistleblower prompted a wave of media scrutiny at Facebook when she shared thousands of internal documents with The Wall Street Journaland the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress who show that Facebook knew about the harm its products could cause, but downplayed that fact to lawmakers and the public. This evidence, which hasn’t been in the conversation yet, reveals how Facebook conducted research that found its products can cause mental health issues, allow violent content to flourish, and foster polarized reactions — and then largely ignored that research.

“I came forward because I realized a scary truth: Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what’s going on inside Facebook,” Haugen said in her opening testimony on Tuesday.

In a statement in response to Tuesday’s hearing, Facebook’s director of political communications Lena Pietsch wrote that Haugen “has worked at the company for less than two years, had no direct reporting, and never attended a decision point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times for not working on the subject in question.”

“We do not agree with her characterization of many of the issues she has testified about,” Beach wrote. Despite all this, we agree on one thing. It’s time to start creating normative rules for the Internet. It’s been 25 years since the Internet’s rules were updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions for lawmakers, it’s time for Congress to take action.”

In the past, congressional hearings were often about Facebook I descended to political greatness, where legislators deviate from the topic to their partisan grievances with the company. Some Republicans focused on making Unproven accusations That the social media company has an anti-conservative bias. Other times, lawmakers have made slips that reveal their apparent lack of basic technical knowledge—like the infamous question asked by now-retired Senator Oren Hatch (R-Utah) about How does Facebook make money, or Senator Richard Blumenthal’s last question about “Finsta” during a Senate Subcommittee Hearing last Thursday.

This time around, though, lawmakers across the aisle have been remarkably focused and well-thought-out on the relevant — and tangible — issues at hand. They asked Haugen specific questions about the harm Facebook can cause, especially to teens and children, and how that might be resolved.

In contrast, Haugen was an eloquent witness. It broke down complex topics like Facebook’s algorithmically categorized news feed in an accessible way. She offered some of the clearest explanations yet to both Congress and the public about what’s wrong with Facebook and how these problems can be fixed.

Give Facebook real outside stewardship

Haugen has repeatedly called on lawmakers to create an external regulatory agency with the power to request data from Facebook, particularly about how its algorithms work and what kind of content they amplify on the company’s social media platforms.

“As long as Facebook operates in the dark, it will not be accountable to anyone,” Haugen said in her opening testimony. Haugen argued that “transparency is the critical starting point for effective regulation: full access to data for research that Facebook does not direct.”

In her written testimony that she shared prior to the hearing, Haugen . criticized Facebook’s Existing Semi-Independent Oversight Board (which has no real legal authority over Facebook) because it believes it is “blind” to Facebook’s inner workings.

“Right now, the only people in the world who are trained to analyze these experiences are people who grew up within Facebook or other social media companies,” Haugen said. “There has to be an organizational home where someone like me can take a tour of duty after working in a place like this,” she said.

In Frances Hogan’s opening statement, she said, “I believe Facebook products harm children, fuel division, and weaken our democracy.”
Jabin Botsford/AFP via Getty Images

Stanford law professor Nate Purcelli, who has previously worked directly with Facebook on academic partnerships in the past and who has acknowledged the limitations of those partnerships, recently called for legislation It would force platforms like Facebook to share internal data with external researchers.

Data transparency isn’t exactly the most attention-grabbing concept, nor is it an easy topic to organize. But as Recode mentioned earlier, many of them Top Social Media Experts I agree with Haugen that it’s the first step to meaningfully organizing Facebook.

Open the algorithm black box on Facebook

Facebook’s algorithms underpin how its platforms work and what everyone sees in their news feed. Haugen said that these powerful mechanisms should not operate in a black box that Facebook only controls and understands, and that they should be scrutinized and regulated.

Internal documents revealed by Haugen show how 2018 has changed in Facebook’s News Feed Rewarded content stirs more emotions in people Anger in particular, because it requires more interaction than any other emotion. Hogan and members of Congress have also talked about how Facebook’s algorithms can also push teens toward toxic content, such as those who promote eating disorders.

“I’ve spent most of my career in engagement-based rankings,” said Haugen, who has worked in the past at Google and Pinterest. Facebook says, ‘We can do this safely because we have artificial intelligence. AI will find bad content that we know our engagement ratings are promoting. But she cautioned that “Facebook’s own research says they can’t adequately identify” this dangerous content, and as a result these algorithms are stirring up “extreme emotions and divisiveness” in people.

Haugen stressed that this is the crux of many of Facebook’s most pressing problems, and it needs oversight from Congress.

“I suspect [Haugen] Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said. “Now we can see how this company operates and how indifferent it is to the impact of algorithms on the youth of our country.”

Put in place federal privacy laws to protect Facebook users

Privacy was not one of Haugen’s main focus while testifying, but several lawmakers, including Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Ten), and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) need to organize Better for privacy.

Protecting people’s privacy on platforms like Facebook is an area where Congress has introduced some of the most legislation to date, including updating 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), The The KIDS Act, which would force tech companies to severely limit The ad targets children 16 or younger, and the SAFE DATA Act, which would create user rights in the data Transparency and request approval to participate To process sensitive data. So it makes sense that this would be an essential part of their potential plans to organize Facebook.

Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Subcommittee Chair Senator Richard Blumenthal (L-R) arrive to hear Francis Haugen’s testimony.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

“The work to pass the federal privacy standard has been a long one. I put my first commission in place in 2012 and I think it’s this Congress and this subcommittee that will lead the way,” Blackburn said.

Haugen agreed that how Facebook handles the privacy of its users is a major area of ​​concern that regulators should focus on, but she also said she does not believe privacy regulation is the only solution to mitigating Facebook’s damage to society.

“Facebook wants to trick you into believing that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 alone will be sufficient,” Haugen said. “Although it is important, it will not get to the heart of the problem, which is that no one really understands the destructive features of Facebook except for Facebook. We cannot afford less than complete transparency.”

Repair Section 230 – But Focus on Algorithms

During the session, many senators raised Section 230 – Historic Internet Act Protecting Technology Companies Most types of illegal content posted by users on their platforms will be prosecuted.

Section 230 reform would be highly controversial. Even some policy organizations such as Electronic Frontier Foundation And Fight for the future, which closely scrutinizes tech companies, argued that repealing this law could solidify the dominance of the tech giants because it would make it more difficult for smaller social media platforms with fewer content moderation resources to operate without facing costly lawsuits.

Haugen appears to understand some of these nuances in its discussion of 230. It suggested that regulators amend Section 230 to make companies legally responsible for their algorithms that promote harmful content rather than posts by specific users.

“I encourage reform of Section 230 decisions about algorithms. Editing 230 about content — it gets very complicated because user-generated content is something companies don’t have much control over,” Haugen said. “They have 100 percent control over the algorithms.”

What then

Leaders of the Senate subcommittee that brought Haugen to testify on Tuesday said they will keep Facebook in the spotlight and that they will hold more hearings in the future (they won’t say when) about Facebook and other tech companies.

“It really captured the consciousness of Congress today and made a lasting and lasting difference in how we approach big technology,” Blumenthal said. “Without any exaggeration, we are now beginning a different – and hopefully different – era of accountability for the big tech companies.”

But Congress is still in the talking stage. None of the many bills that have been introduced over the years – like a bill to prevent Misleading health information on social media Or the proposed antitrust law to prevent it Big tech companies sell the production lines they control – Close to remote scrolling. And while this moment looks different — and some senators, like Ed Markey, have reintroduced the bills in light of the new scrutiny — there is a battle ahead for lawmakers if they are willing to fight back.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, who co-led the subcommittee that held Tuesday’s hearing, declined to say whether he would summon Mark Zuckerberg or exactly when the next hearing would be. Senator Marsha Blackburn, who co-chairs Blumenthal, said change is coming “sooner rather than later” and that Congress is “close to a bipartisan agreement.” But given the fact that Congress is still negotiating core funding for the US government, trying to regulate Facebook effectively will take some time as well as some great coordination between the parties.

But the senators’ focus on today’s hearing shows that even this polarized Congress may be ready to unite — at least when it comes to Facebook regulation.

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