‘A new era’? Fears over children unite Facebook critics in Congress

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“There is always reason to be skeptical of Congress’ action on any issue,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Who chairs the human rights protection panel after the hearing. consumers who convened Tuesday’s session. But at the same time, he said, “There are times when the momentum is so powerful that something is actually done – and I think this problem may be one where the power of outrage and support. bipartite really got us across the finish line. “

“I have rarely – if ever – seen the kind of unanimity displayed today,” he said.

Even some with links to Facebook described it as a possible turning point. Katie Harbath, who until this year was director of public policy at Facebook, called Tuesday’s session “the biggest audience we’ve ever had on technology.”

“I don’t think this moment alone is all of a sudden, ‘We have legislation!'” She said in an interview. “But I put it at the level of crisis milestones – Russian ads, Cambridge Analytica – for the company that I think is entering a new era for us.”

Here are POLITICO’s main takeaways from Haugen’s testimony, including new details on how Facebook works and its recommendations on how Congress can crack down on company behavior.

Torpedo whistleblower part of congressional tech agenda

The audience was notable for its lack of partisan fighting that has marked some recent tech blockbusters in Congress – even as Haugen rejected some of the main proposals by lawmakers to regulate the industry.

She advised against lawmakers trying to separate Instagram from Facebook, as many Democrats have advocated, or restrict the types of speech covered by an online accountability shield known as Section 230.

“I am actually against the dismantling of Facebook,” she told senators, adding that such a split would not solve the problems that lawmakers care about.

“If you separate Facebook and Instagram, it’s likely that most of the advertising dollars will go to Instagram, and Facebook will continue to be that life-threatening Frankenstein around the world,” Haugen said. In this situation, she added, the financial boost to Instagram would mean fewer resources for Facebook to solve its problems.

Instead, she recommended the creation of a federal regulator – a sort of supervisory board, authorized by Congress – that would help analyze the research, activities, and transparency of tech companies and develop regulations. appropriate.

“Finding collaborative solutions with Congress is going to be essential because these systems will continue to exist and be dangerous, even if they are broken,” she said.

Haugen also urged lawmakers to overhaul their approach to Section 230, the 1996 law that protects internet platforms from legal liability for content that users post. The provision has sharply divided parties, with many Democrats and Republicans disagreeing on whether the main issues with tech platforms relate to hate speech and disinformation or censorship.

Rather than focusing on the content of what users post online, Haugen urged lawmakers to change the law to hold companies accountable for the algorithms that decide what content users see.

Tech companies have relatively little control over user-generated content, making it more difficult to change Section 230 on this basis, Haugen said, but “they have 100% control over their algorithms, and Facebook shouldn’t get a free pass on the choices it makes; prioritizing growth, virality, and responsiveness over public safety.

Facebook spokespersons rejected Haugen’s credentials after the hearing, pointing out that she had only worked for Facebook for a short time, never attended a meeting with senior executives and had not worked directly on some of the main issues she had testified to.

But Blumenthal described Haugen – a former debate team captain in her native Iowa, according to local reports – as “articulate and persuasive.” And he told reporters after the hearing that all of the changes proposed by Haugen deserved “serious consideration.”

Blumenthal and Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the top Republican on the consumer protection panel, said people can expect to see a move first on bipartisan legislation to strengthen child protection and update children’s online privacy laws.

Biparty legislation dealing with the protection of children and adolescents is “probably the only issue that Congress can immediately come together on,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy.

Lawmakers blame tech lobbyists for congressional inaction

Panel members agreed on the need to move forward with tech regulations and consumer protection – showing a consensus and hunger not seen in any other major tech hearing in recent memory.

But some frustrations expressed as to the difficulty of achieving one of their common goals. And for that, they blamed the tech lobbyists.

Congress has “done nothing” to significantly tackle issues surrounding Facebook, such as privacy and child safety, due to intense lobbying efforts from the tech industry, Senator Amy said Klobuchar (D-Minn.) At the hearing.

“We haven’t done anything to update our privacy laws in this country – our federal privacy laws – nothing, nothing, in any way,” Klobuchar said. , who chairs the antitrust panel of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Why? Because there are lobbyists on every corner of this building who have been hired by the tech industry.

But Republicans and Democrats have said the whistleblower’s testimony will be a catalyst for action.

“The conversation so far reminds me that you and I need to resolve our differences and bring forward legislation,” Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) Told Blumenthal during the hearing.

“Our differences seem very minor in the face of the revelations we have now seen,” replied Blumenthal.

Blumenthal later told reporters that the testimony prompted Congress to pass a national privacy and child protection bill under the Children Act, which places safeguards over children. features that amplify certain types of content.

Facebook’s hiring difficulties give new meaning to “big is bad”

One of the reasons Facebook struggles to tackle harmful content and online threats is because it struggles to recruit and retain enough employees, Haugen said, suggesting that the size of the company leaves staff dispersed and makes monitoring and action more difficult.

This was a startling statement given that Facebook, one of the richest companies in the world, employs tens of thousands of workers and the company announced additional hires during high-stakes events like the US election. of 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Facebook has a long history of trying to recruit and retain the number of employees it needs to tackle the wide range of projects it has chosen to take on,” she said. “Facebook is stuck in a cycle where it struggles to hire – this causes it to be understaffed on projects, which causes scandals, which then makes it harder to hire.”

Asked about his comments, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said only that Facebook has more than 63,000 employees.

“We are only at the tip of the iceberg”

Harbath said the whistleblower’s complaints to federal securities regulators “are just a small drop” hinting at what could happen to Facebook. And given the sheer volume of documents she submitted to Congress, “we are only at the tip of the iceberg.”

Haugen’s attorneys have filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that discrepancies between Facebook’s internal research and public statements may have misled investors. The charges could lead to shareholder lawsuits and SEC enforcement action against the tech giant.

“There is a lot more to come of this,” Harbath said in a post-hearing interview. “It’s a bit like halftime [that] we’re right now, in terms of this cycle around the questions that people are going to have. And I hope, at a minimum, that forces the company to be more transparent. “

Blumenthal postulated that there are other tech whistleblowers and that current Facebook employees may soon emerge as a result of Haugen’s testimony.

“She encouraged other whistleblowers,” he said after the hearing, “and I have no doubts that there are more who will come forward.”

Blumenthal also demanded CEO Mark Zuckerberg testify before Congress about internal research made public by Haugen, and he also said the subcommittee could subpoena Facebook for additional cases. Haugen said on Tuesday she was “speaking to other parts of Congress” about the concerns raised in the documents.

“Whatever happens, Facebook has lost its credibility in a way it won’t be able to recover easily,” said Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Frances Haugen has exposed Facebook’s management failures to protect the public, setting off what will be an unbridled wave of regulatory investigations and litigation.”


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