This concludes the testimony of Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen in US Congress on Tuesday. She spoke for hours, painting a dire picture of the company’s policies and offering suggestions of how to fix a company she called “morally bankrupt”.
Haugen’s appearance in front of the US Senate is just the latest high-profile hearing on Big Tech, but it proved a substantive and and insightful session that is sure to have a lasting impact.
One of the most useful Big Tech hearings yet
US lawmakers have held several high-profile hearings on the practices of prominent tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon in the past years, but we have rarely seen testimony from a witness who has so much expertise and so many actionable suggestions to changing a tech company for the better. It may have been the most useful Big Tech hearing yet.
Social media’s impact on children
Tuesday’s hearing was prompted by a Wall Street Journal report that revealed that Facebook had put aside its own research on the negative impact of its Instagram app on children.
Haugen told lawmakers that Facebook intentionally targets teens, including children under the age of 13. Just last week, Facebook’s head of safety Antigone Davis had responded to questions about the company’s targeting of young users by emphasizing that children under the age of 13 were not allowed on Facebook.
She said she does not believe Facebook when it says it is suspending Instagram Kids, its platform for young users that has been widely criticized. “I would be sincerely surprised if they do not continue working on Instagram Kids.”
Fresh calls for regulation
Haugen argued that Facebook needs more regulation, painting a picture of a company that lacks the staffing, expertise and transparency needed to make meaningful change. “Facebook is stuck in a cycle where it struggles to hire,” she says. “That causes it to understaff projects, which causes scandals, which then makes it harder to hire.”
Senators seemed to agree
Senators repeatedly compared Facebook to Big Tobacco, suggesting we may see similar regulation to the platform as we have seen of cigarettes in the past. “Facebook is like Big Tobacco, enticing young kids with that first cigarettes,” said senator Ed Markey. “A first social media account designed to keep kids as users for life.”
“Congress will be taking action. We will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracy, any longer,” Markey added.
A spotlight on Facebook’s role abroad
Haugen put the spotlight on the impact of Facebook’s policy decisions outside f of the US, saying that the company does not dedicate equal amounts of research and resources to misinformation and hate speech to non-English content. That resource gap, she said, that is fueling violence in places like Ethiopia, she contended .
And on Facebook’s lack of transparency
Haugen also condemned Facebook’s lack of transparency and suppression of research, both internally and by outside auditors. She referenced Facebook’s decision in August to revoke the access of researchers of New York University to the platform’s data about the spread of vaccine misinformation.
“The fact that Facebook is so scared of even basic transparency, that it goes out of its way to block researchers who are asking awkward questions, shows the need for Congressional oversight,” she said.
An array of possible next steps
Haugen suggested several measures that could be taken to regulate Facebook, that will surely be debated in the weeks to come. Those measures include an independent government body staffed by former tech workers who understand how the algorithm works, changing the Newsfeed to be chronological rather than ranking content through an opaque algorithm and requiring Facebook to publicly disclose its internal research.