2021-October-16 15:52
World
2021-October-6  10:13

Whistleblower to US Senate: Don't Trust Facebook

TEHRAN (FNA)- Whistleblower Frances Haugen came to the US Senate on Tuesday with a message about Facebook and its leaders: Don't trust them.

The former project manager whose revelations have shaken the world's largest social network accused Mark Zuckerberg and his company of knowingly pushing products that harm children and young adults in a pursuit of endlessly growing profits, POLITICO reported.

She and a series of lawmakers of both parties likened Facebook's behavior to that of the tobacco industry — which persisted for decades in denying that cigarettes were addictive and deadly.

She said Facebook's failure to devote more resources to preventing foreign adversaries from using the platform in troubling ways poses a threat to US national security, adding that "I'm speaking to other parts of Congress about that".

"I have strong national security concerns about how Facebook operates today," Haugen added.

Haugen's other message: Washington must act.

"I am here today because I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy," Haugen said, two days after going public in a "60 Minutes" interview.

"The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won't solve this crisis without your help," she added.

The Senate hearing comes three weeks after The Wall Street Journal began publishing stories based on troves of documents gathered by Haugen, who has also provided information to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The disclosures included the fact that researchers at Instagram, which Facebook owns, knew their app was worsening teenagers' body images and mental health, even as the company publicly downplayed these effects.

During her nearly two years with the company, Haugen was a product manager on Facebook's Civic Integrity team, where she worked to prevent election interference and misinformation. She resigned from Facebook in April and left the company officially in May, taking thousands of pages of internal documents.

Facebook has contended that news coverage of Haugen's disclosures mischaracterizes the company's internal research, and company spokesperson Andy Stone argued Tuesday that the whistleblower is not an expert in one of the main topics she's testifying about.

"Just pointing out the fact that Frances Haugen did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook," Stone tweeted.

Haugen said the "crisis" at Facebook calls for action by Washington.

And she urged lawmakers to not trust the public assurances that Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives offer about the inner workings of the company's highly guarded algorithms.

"Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 will be sufficient," Haugen added, referring to a 1996 liability law that protects major tech companies from many lawsuits over content decisions.

"While important, these will not get to the core of the issue — which is that no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except Facebook. We can afford nothing less than full transparency," she continued.

Haugen is slated to testify to the UK parliament in the coming weeks, and her remarks Tuesday suggest she is communicating with other bodies in Congress.

She did not specify who in Congress she may be speaking to. But House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) had said Monday that the congressional committee investigating the January 6 assault on the Capitol should hear from Haugen on Facebook’s decision to disband her civic integrity team and turned off certain safeguards after the 2020 presidential election.

Haugen has contended that the two actions contributed to the insurrection in January, a contention that Facebook's vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, has called "ludicrous".

“The Select Committee will need to hear from her, and get internal info from Facebook to flesh out their role,” Schiff wrote on Twitter.

Following the nearly three-hour-long congressional hearing, Facebook questioned Haugen's qualifications to speak out about certain issues, most notably the social media company's research and policies surrounding children.

"Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives — and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question," said Lena Pietsch, Facebook's director of policy communications, in a statement.

"We don't agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about," Pietsch added.

The dismissal of Haugen's credentials is the strongest critique the company has made about the former employee, who accused Facebook of prioritizing profits over the public interest.

As she repeatedly acknowledged, Haugen did not directly work on children's issues during her time at Facebook, which was the intended focus of Tuesday's hearing by the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee. Haugen testified that many of the internal documents she took from Facebook were available on platforms accessible to all Facebook employees.

“I did not work directly on issues concerning children,” she told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in response to a question about whether Facebook held discussions on how to respond to internal research on Instagram’s impact on teens.

“These are just documents that were freely available in the company, so I am not aware of that,” she noted.

Despite the disagreement, Pietsch stated Facebook agreed with Haugen on the need to "create standard rules for the internet. ... Instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act".

Lawmakers at Tuesday's hearing indicated no doubts about Haugen's qualifications to speak about what she learned and saw at Facebook.

“For today, the important point is really how eloquent and persuasive Frances Haugen was with every member of our committee,” subcommittee Chair Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a briefing afterward, adding, “She has really gripped consciousness of Congress today, and I believe made a lasting difference in how we will regard Big Tech.”

Congress has “done nothing” to meaningfully tackle the problems surrounding Facebook due to the intense lobbying efforts of the tech industry, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said during the hearing.

In remarks while questioning Haugen, Klobuchar (D-Minn.) noted she agreed with the whistleblower's conclusion that “privacy legislation has not gone far enough” to address concerns surrounding Facebook’s engagement and interest in recruiting preteens to the platform.

“We have not done anything to update our privacy laws in this country — our federal privacy laws — nothing, zilch, in any major way," added Klobuchar, who is working on antitrust legislation as chair of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

"Why? Because there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry,” she continued.

“We have done nothing when it comes to making the algorithms more transparent,” she continued, adding that the company’s opaqueness has prevented independent research on the social platform.

“Why? Because Facebook and the other tech companies are throwing a bunch of money around this town and people are listening to them,” she said.

The senator later told POLITICO that “it’s like the game of whack-a-mole. Every time I think I’ve got something done, some other lobbyist pops up”, she said.

Facebook has “literally hired so many people in this town", she added.

The consolidation in the tech industry, she added, ”allows the dominant platforms to control all this like the bullies in the neighborhood” and prevents “bells and whistles” from being put into effect.

Klobuchar later said she hoped Haugen’s testimony would spark change.

“I’m hoping that is the catalyst for action, because we need action on many fronts,” she underlined.

Other senators have reiterated Klobuchar's call for a legislative response. In his remarks, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) vowed to Zuckerburg that Congress would be addressing these issues and taking action against Facebook.

“Your time of invading privacy, promoting toxic content, and preying on children and teens is over," he underscored.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) echoed Klobuchar’s concerns about lobbying, stating that Facebook — together with Google — were “extremely powerful” in D.C.

“I don't think there's a more powerful interest group in town than them,” he said, adding, “Their reach is really — it's not just here. It's into the academic community, it's into the think tank community, on both sides of the aisle. They've been very strategic about it and they're very influential.”

Republican Sen. John Thune said he believes it's time for Congress to look at overhauling antitrust laws to rein in the power of Silicon Valley — his strongest remarks on the issue to date.

Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, told reporters on the sidelines that the company has an "enormous amount of market power" and a "monopoly status".

"Transparency and accountability are a big part of this, and then looking at the broader issue of antitrust is also something that Congress needs to examine thoroughly and see if change is needed there, if we need to break companies up," Thune continued.

"If you own Instagram and Facebook among other social media platforms … that’s an enormous amount of market power, it’s monopoly status, and I think that’s also something Congress needs to get on top of," Thune added.

Thune, a key member of the Senate Commerce Committee, pointed out that the Senate Judiciary Committee is the primary panel with jurisidction over antitrust. While Thune has spoken out about the need for tech reform, he has not previously emphasized antitrust as a potential solution to his concerns about the social media companies.

A bipartisan group of senators is negotiating over companion legislation to a House antitrust package that passed the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year. Klobuchar is discussing the legislation directly with Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Thune's support could significantly accelerate the process to come up with bipartisan antitrust tweaks.

However, when asked about whether Thune intends to support that effort, he demurred. He said he's aware of Klobuchar's efforts on antitrust and said he's open to learning more about it.

Blumenthal drew on what he called a "striking" parallel between Facebook and big tobacco companies, saying that the social media company is facing "a moment of reckoning".

"They valued their profit more than the pain that they caused to children and their families," he added.

He also praised Haugen in for what he called her courage and strength in courage in coming forward.

"You have a compelling, credible voice, which we've heard already, but you are not here alone," he said, adding, "You're armed with documents and evidence. And you speak volumes as they do about how Facebook has put profits ahead of people."

Markey echoed that sentiment, telling Haugen, "You are a 21st century American hero."

One reason Facebook struggles to tackle harmful content is it has trouble hiring and keeping enough employees, Haugen contended.

"Facebook has struggled for a long time to recruit and retain the number of employees it needs to tackle the large scope of projects that is chosen to take on,” she said, adding, “Facebook is stuck in a cycle where it struggles to hire — that causes it to understaff projects, which causes scandals, which then makes it harder to hire.”

Haugen’s claim is unusual because Facebook, one of the world's wealthiest companies, is staffed with tens of thousands of employees. The company has boasted that it has boosted hiring around major events like the 2020 election cycle and the COVID-19 pandemic, which presented the social network with heightened mis- and disinformation and security threats.

Sen. Maria Cantwell questioned whether Facebook was committing "advertising fraud" by offering misleading assurances of how it handles hate speech — opening the prospect of yet another possible source of legal peril stemming from Haugen's revelations.

While questioning Haugen, Cantwell (D-Wash.) said Facebook may not only have misled investors — as outlined in Haugen's whistleblower complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission — but also to parties that sought to buy ads on the social network.

“Aren’t we now also talking about advertising fraud? Aren’t you selling something to advertisers that’s not really what they’re getting?” Cantwell asked, raising the issue of whether Facebook’s handing of content was “based on a different model” than what was presented to advertisers.

Haugen responded that “multiple examples” exist in which Facebook told advertisers it was doing “everything in their power to make this safer or ‘we take down all the hate speech when we find it’.”

“And that was not true. They get 3 to 5 percent of hate speech,” Haugen continued.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Cantwell's remarks.

Changing Section 230 would do the most to rein in the dangers pervasive across Facebook, Haugen added.

Section 230, a 1996 statute that shields internet platforms from legal liability for content that users post on their sites, remains at the center of debates in Congress over how much social media companies should police material on their platform. Lawmakers of both parties, as well as President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, have all have called for revising the provision or doing away with it altogether.

Still, major gaps exist between the parties: Democrats generally argue that platforms use Section 230 to get off the hook for the proliferation of misinformation on their apps, while many Republicans argue that platforms lean on the legal shield as a tool for censoring conservative content.

When asked what regulations or legal actions by Congress or the administration would have the biggest consequences for Facebook and Instagram, or strike the most fear in the companies, Haugen called for modifying Section 230 to hold companies accountable for their algorithms — rather than holding them liable for users’ posts.

Tech companies have relatively little control over user-generated content, making it more difficult to alter Section 230 on that basis, Haugen said, but “they have 100 percent control over their algorithms, and Facebook should not get a free pass on choices it makes to prioritize growth and virality and reactiveness over public safety”.

She added, “They're paying for their profits right now with our safety.”

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg proposed a specific approach to altering the statute, but the pitch fell flat with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Blumenthal also demanded that Zuckerberg testify before Congress about the internal research Haugen has made public.

“You need to explain to Frances Haugen, to us, to the world, and to the parents of America what you are doing and why you did it,” noted Blumenthal, who described the CEO’s strategy as “no apologies, no admission, no action, nothing to see here".

“Mark Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror today, and yet rather than taking responsibility and showing leadership, Mr. Zuckerberg is going sailing,” the senator said in his opening statements. (Zuckerberg had posted footage of a sailing jaunt over the weekend.)

The full committee's top Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, said in an interview outside the hearing room that he agrees that Zuckerberg should testify. A "bipartisan consensus" exists on the committee on that point, he added.

Blumenthal also pushed Haugen on whether Zuckerberg had the final say on the company's decision last week to postpone plans for a kid-version of Instagram — a question that Facebook's global head of safety dodged at a Senate hearing last week.

"There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled" as Facebook is by Zuckerberg, Haugen added, "and in the end, the buck stops with Mark".

The subcommittee's top Republican, Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, argued said Facebook has “gotten away with abusing consumers for far too long".

The senator specifically pointed to Facebook’s interest in the preteen market, stating that the company was “running out of teens to add to Instagram” and “studying younger and younger kids so they can market to them".

“While Facebook says that kids below 13 are not allowed on Facebook or Instagram, we know that they are there — Facebook said they deleted 600,000 accounts recently from kids under 13. How do you get that many underage accounts if you aren’t turning a blind eye to them in the first place?” Blackburn added.

Blackburn also noted Facebook “turns a blind eye towards blatant human exploitation taking place on its platform”, like “trafficking, forced labor, cartels” — echoing another one of Haugen’s allegation, that Facebook’s responses to such behavior on the platform was weak.

“By shining a light on Mr. Zuckerberg and company’s conduct, we will help hold them accountable,” Blackburn added.