WASHINGTON — Former Facebook Inc.
Employee Frances Haugen detailed to a Senate panel on Tuesday the internal documents she gathered showing a range of negative impacts from the company’s products – revelations that senators said would create momentum for more regulations. strict on Big Tech.
Lawmakers called for stronger privacy and competition laws, special online protections for children, more transparency in social media algorithms, and increased platform accountability.
“I think now is the time to act and you are the catalyst for this action,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.).
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Connecticut), chairman of the Senate consumer protection subcommittee that chaired Tuesday’s hearing, said that following the revelations from Ms Haugen, Facebook and the big tech companies are “facing a great moment of tobacco, a moment of reckoning.
“Facebook knows that its products can be addicting and toxic to children,” he said. Mr Blumenthal called on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to appear before Congress to testify, calling the company “morally bankrupt.”
The revelations “show how urgent it is for Congress to act against powerful tech companies on behalf of children and the general public,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), The top Republican of the Trade Committee.
The documents Ms Haugen gathered while working at Facebook formed the basis of the Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series.
Facebook 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.
“It is not correct that leaked internal research shows that Instagram is ‘toxic’ to teenage girls,” Facebook said in its statement. “Research has actually shown that many teens we have heard from believe that using Instagram helps them when they are dealing with the kind of difficult times and issues that teens have always faced. “
The Journal defended the series, saying Facebook had not identified any factual errors.
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Ms Haugen appeared in person at the hearing on Capitol Hill, while Ms Davis appeared from a Washington, DC office via a video stream.
The Facebook teams that drive the growth of the business often work against the teams responsible for the security of the platform, Ms Haugen told the panel.
Ms Haugen said that many initiatives led by Facebook’s integrity teams are often “undone by new growth plans that thwart these remedies.” She added that Facebook teams are often too understaffed to adequately deal with issues at hand, adding that she was part of a team that could only handle a third of the cases in its queue.
She said when given a choice, Facebook executives often chose a path that preserved profits rather than the safety of its users. She said it was part of a corporate culture Mr. Zuckerberg built on Facebook. Mr. Zuckerberg has majority control of the votes and is CEO and chairman of the board of Facebook, which makes him exceptionally powerful in Silicon Valley, she said.
“There is currently no one holding Mark accountable other than himself,” she said.
Ms Haugen, who resigned from Facebook in April, was a product manager hired 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 about the potential harm of platforms and its reluctance to address its shortcomings.
Ms. Haugen has filed for federal whistleblower protection with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She is also interested in cooperation with state attorneys general and European regulators.
Ms Haugen gathered internal documents showing how Facebook’s Instagram app led to depression and anxiety in many teenage girls.
Instagram’s disclosures prompted an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a 1998 law governing websites that collect data about children. The law, known as Coppa, has been widely criticized as inadequate in the age of social media.
“Updating the Coppa will be essential,” said Senator Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), Who chairs the powerful Trade Committee, during last week’s hearing.
Critics say the law as drafted contains measures that create enforcement problems for the Federal Trade Commission.
One is the requirement that a platform operator have “real knowledge” that they are collecting personal information about children before the law’s more stringent restrictions come into effect. The other is its age limit: only children under 13 benefit from its strictest protections.
Republicans and Democrats supported updating the law.
“I have three daughters and when I read the Wall Street Journal article I was shocked but in some ways not surprised,” Senator Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) said at the hearing. from last week. “Personally, I believe we’re going to look back 20 years from now and see the huge social mental health challenges that have been created by that time…”
In addition to the Instagram docs, Ms Haugen posted other internal documents that could be discussed at Tuesday’s hearing, including how the company’s moderation rules favor elites; how its algorithms promote discord; and how drug cartels and human traffickers openly use its services.
In addition, it is possible that lawmakers, especially Democrats, are focusing on the role Facebook may have played in the riot that engulfed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
In a statement this week, Mr Blumenthal pledged more hearings “documenting why Facebook and other tech companies need to be held accountable – and how we plan to do it … We need to consider tighter oversight, effective protections for children and tools for parents, among the necessary reforms.
In its statement, Facebook said its “teams must balance protecting the ability of billions of people to speak out openly with the need to keep our platform a safe and positive place.”
“We continue to make significant improvements to combat the spread of disinformation and harmful content,” the company said. “To suggest that we encourage bad content and that we don’t do anything is just not true.”
—Deepa Seetharaman contributed to this article.
Write to John D. McKinnon at [email protected]
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