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Frances Haugen: the EU has a 'once-in-a-generation opportunity' to regulate Facebook

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Frances Haugen answered a wide array of questions from European lawmakers.
Frances Haugen answered a wide array of questions from European lawmakers.   -   Copyright  Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower who has exposed the company's alleged inaction to fight misinformation and hate speech, has urged European lawmakers to seize a "once-in-a-generation opportunity" to align technology and democracy and create a safer online world.

Facebook can no longer be "the judge, the jury, the prosecutor and the witness" of the digital space, Haugen told MEPs in a hearing held in Brussels.

"Democracies must step in and make new laws."

The data engineer accused her former employer of undermining the health, safety and integrity of communities around the world due to its systematic failure to curb fake news and hate speech.

"I am here today because I believe that Facebook's products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more," she said in her opening statement.

Huagen said the company has the tools to make Facebook safer but won't take reforming action because doing so would result in fewer profits. This refusal to change course, she added, has already resulted in "actual violence" and will continue until new legislation is introduced.

"It doesn't have to be this way," she remarked. "We are here today because of deliberate choices Facebook has made."

The whistleblower described Facebook as an impenetrable "profit-generating machine" that makes it impossible for public authorities, experts, academics and even its own shareholders to access its data and understand how the company really works and influences social coexistence.

"Almost no one outside Facebook knows what's happening inside Facebook," she told lawmakers. "No one can understand Facebook's destructive choices better than Facebook."

The California-based multinational, she noted, has known "at least" since 2018 that European political parties exploit polarising content to reach citizens at a faster pace and and at a larger scale. Online campaigns based on divisive messages are "five to ten times" cheaper, she said.

Facebook denies Haugen's accusations and argues her version of events is inaccurate and nonsensical. In the midst of the PR scandal, the company has rebranded itself as Meta to focus on the nascent metaverse, an under-construction virtual reality where people could meet, work and play.

The whistleblower said the abrupt shift to the metaverse reflects the multinational's habit to move on to new projects instead of tackling the problems caused by its current range of products.

'Potential to become global gold standard'

Haugen's visit to Brussels is part of a wider European tour that began in the United Kingdom and then continued in Germany. Since revealing her identity, she has become a strong advocate for state regulation to rein in the power excesses of Big Tech.

During the hearing, which took over three hours, MEPs asked the whistleblower for her opinion about the Digital Services Act (DSA), a world-first draft law to govern the digital economy.

Unveiled in December 2020 by the European Commission, the DSA is a rulebook to protect the fundamental rights of consumers and increase the transparency and accountability of online platforms.

The legislation features a set of obligations for Internet providers, hosting services (like cloud), online platforms (such as app stores and social media) and the so-called "very large online platforms", those who reach more than 10% of the EU's population. Facebook has over 250 million users in the bloc.

Due to its size, audience and profits, this last category is the one subject to the longest list of rules and obligations, which include abiding by codes of conduct, sharing data with public authorities, disclosing algorithms used for recommendations and empowering users to report illegal content.

Haugen spoke positively about the proposed DSA and said it has "the potential to become the global gold standard" and inspire other countries, including her native America, to follow suit.

"There is a lot at stake here. You have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create new rules for our online world," she told MEPs.

"A safer, more enjoyable social media is possible."

She urged lawmakers to guarantee the law's enforcement is firm and avoid possible loopholes that can shield Facebook from true accountability.

Among her suggestions was to narrow as much as possible the exception for trade secrets which, if too broad, the company could exploit to deny access to its data and algorithms.

Haugen underlined the need to force online platforms to release risk assessments to the public and therefore allow citizens to make better-informed consumer choices.

"You can't have a free market if people don't know what they're buying," she said, claiming that Facebook has hidden its internal data "because it's bad".

The DSA's scope, she recommended, must go beyond illegal content and cover all content that violates the platform's terms and conditions.

Lawmakers and member states are currently debating and negotiating the draft law, which is expected to be passed in the second half of 2022.

"The devil is in the details," she cautioned.

Another recurrent topic during the Q&A session was the question of linguistic diversity. Haugen believes Facebook's content moderation only works in American English – the language the system was developed in – and is vastly inefficient in other countries and languages, even in British English.

She said linguistically diverse places are the most vulnerable to harmful content and asked European lawmakers to use their draft legislation to impose "language-neutral solutions" on Facebook.

"If you get the DSA right for your linguistically and ethnically diverse 450 million EU citizens, you can create a game-changer for the world," Haugen said.

"I believe we still have time to act and we must act now."

Prior to the hearing, Haugen met Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the internal market, and Christel Schaldemose, the MEP who is serving as rapporteur for the DSA file.

Who is Frances Haugen?

A former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen rose to global prominence in early October when she appeared on a prime-time show on American television and claimed the company consistently chooses to prioritise its profitability and growth to the detriment of the well-being of its millions of users around the world.

Haugen, who worked in the company's civic integrity department, leaked thousands of sensitive and unheard-of documents to The Wall Street Journal and the Securities and Exchange Commission to back up her claims.

The data engineer has accused Facebook of fostering a business model that promotes hate speech and misinformation, damages democracy and sows social division through the uncontrolled spread of polarising -- but highly profitable -- content.

She has spoken about Instagram's negative impact on teenage mental health and Facebook's enabling role in the ethnic violence in Ethiopia and Myanmar. She also said the tech giant misled investors by supposedly painting a deceptive picture of its efforts to curb misinformation. More recently, she called on the founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to resign.

"The thing I saw over and over again was that there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen told CBS's 60 Minutes.