“There is always cause for skepticism when Congress acts on any matter,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chairman of the consumer protection committee, who convened the meeting on Tuesday, after the hearing. “There are times when the momentum is so strong that something is actually done – and I think this problem could be one where the power of outrage and overparty support has really allowed us to cross the finish line.”
“I’ve rarely – if ever – seen the kind of unanimity that is shown today,” he said.
Even some with connections to Facebook cited this as a possible turning point. Katie Harbath, who was Facebook’s director of public policy up to this year, described Tuesday’s session as “the largest hearing we’ve ever had on technology.”
“I don’t think that this moment alone is suddenly like ‘We have laws!'”, She said in an interview – for the company that I think will usher in a new era. “
Here are POLITICO’s key takeaways from Haugen’s testimony, including new details about how Facebook works and their recommendations on how Congress can crack down on the company’s behavior.
Whistleblower torpedoes part of the tech agenda at Congress
The hearing was notable for the lack of partisan sparring that featured some of the recent tech blockbusters in Congress – even as Haugen put down some of the key legislative proposals to regulate the industry.
She advised lawmakers both from separating Instagram from Facebook, as many Democrats have advocated, or restricting the types of idioms covered by an online liability protector called Section 230.
“I am actually against the breakup of Facebook,” she told the senators, adding that such a split would not solve the problems that are important to lawmakers.
“If you separate Facebook and Instagram, most of the advertising money would probably go to Instagram, and Facebook will continue to be that Frankenstein who endangers lives around the world,” said Haugen. In that situation, she added, the cash boost for Instagram would mean fewer resources for Facebook to solve its problems.
Instead, she recommended the creation of a federal regulator – a kind of oversight body authorized by Congress – that would help analyze the research, activities, and transparency of technology companies and develop appropriate regulations.
“Finding collaborative solutions with Congress will be vital as these systems will continue to exist and will be dangerous even if they are disbanded,” she said.
Haugen also urged lawmakers to revise their approach to Section 230, the 1996 law that protects Internet platforms from legal liability for user-posted content. The provision has deeply divided the parties, with many Democrats and Republicans disagreeing on whether the main problems with technology platforms are 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 harder to change Section 230 on that basis, Haugen said, but “they have 100 percent control over their algorithms, and Facebook shouldn’t be given free choices to make”. To put growth, virality and responsiveness above public safety. “
Facebook spokespersons declined Haugen’s references after the hearing, stressing that she only worked for Facebook for a short time, never attended a meeting with top executives, and did not work directly on some of the key issues she testified on.
But Blumenthal described Haugen – a former debating team captain in her homeland of Iowa, like that local news reports – as “eloquent and convincing”. And he told reporters after the hearing that any changes proposed by Haugen deserve “serious consideration.”
Blumenthal and Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the consumer protection committee, said people can expect bipartisan legislation to be put in place first to strengthen child protection and update long-standing laws on online child privacy .
Bipartisan legislation to protect children and young people is “probably the only issue that Congress can rally about immediately,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy.
Lawmakers blame technology lobbyists for the inaction of Congress
Members of the panel agreed on the need to push tech regulation and consumer protection – and displayed a consensus and hunger not seen across the board at any other major technical hearing recently.
But some vented their frustration at how difficult it was to accomplish any of their shared goals. And they blamed technology lobbyists for that.
Due to the intense lobbying of the technology industry, Congress had “done nothing” to sensibly address the problems surrounding Facebook, such as the privacy and safety of children, said Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) During the hearing.
“We haven’t done anything to update our data protection laws in this country – our federal data protection laws – in any way,” said Klobuchar, chairman of the antitrust committee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Why? Because there are lobbyists hired by the tech industry on every corner of this building. “
But both Republicans and Democrats said the whistleblower’s testimony would be a catalyst for action.
“The conversation so far reminds me that you and I should resolve our differences and legislate,” Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) Told Blumenthal during the hearing.
“Our differences seem very small, given the revelations we have now seen,” replied Blumenthal.
Blumenthal later told reporters the statement spurred Congress into passing national privacy and child protection law the KIDS law, who lays down guard rails for functions that reinforce certain types of content.
Facebook’s hiring battles give “big is bad” a new meaning
One reason Facebook struggles to fight harmful content and online threats is because it struggles to recruit and retain enough employees, Haugen said, suggesting that the size of the company makes employees thin and oversight and makes it harder to act.
It was a staggering claim as Facebook, one of the richest companies in the world, has tens of thousands of employees and the company has announced additional hires for high profile events like the 2020 US election and the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Facebook has long struggled to recruit and retain the number of people it needs to handle the wide range of projects to be selected,” she said. “Facebook is stuck in a cycle of hiring difficulties – which leads to projects being understaffed, which leads to scandals, which then makes hiring difficult.”
When asked about her remarks, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone only said that Facebook more than 63,000 employees.
“We are only at the tip of the iceberg”
Harbath said complaints the whistleblower filed with federal securities regulators were “just a tiny drop,” suggesting what might come for Facebook. And given the enormous amount of documents she has given to Congress, “we are only at the tip of the iceberg”.
Haugen’s attorneys filed at least eight complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging discrepancies between Facebook’s internal research and public statements may have misled investors. These allegations could lead to shareholder lawsuits and SEC enforcement actions against the tech giant.
“A lot more can come out of it,” said Harbath in an interview after the hearing. “It’s like half-time [that] We are in the process of going into this cycle, the questions people are going to have. And I hope that it will at least force the company to be more transparent. “
Blumenthal posited that there were other tech whistleblowers and that, based on Haugen’s testimony, current Facebook employees could soon appear.
“She encouraged other whistleblowers,” he said after the hearing, “and I am convinced that there are others who will come forward.”
Blumenthal also called for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress about the internal research Haugen has released, and he also said the subcommittee could summon Facebook for additional recordings. Haugen said Tuesday she was speaking to other parts of Congress about concerns raised in the documents.
“Whatever happens, Facebook has lost credibility in ways that it cannot easily recover from,” said Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Frances Haugen has exposed Facebook management’s failure to protect the public and sparked an unbridled wave of government investigations and litigation.”