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Whistleblower testimony and Facebook Papers trigger lawmaker calls for regulation

The Facebook Papers show what its employees knew about how the website fostered polarization and how it contrasted with CEO Mark Zuckerberg's public comments. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Facebook continued to face searing criticism on Monday, as whistleblower Frances Haugen providing blistering testimony to U.K. lawmakers, stirring global momentum to regulate the social media giant.

In the first of a series of scheduled visits to European capitals, Haugen, who left Facebook in May armed with tens of thousands of pages of internal documents, spoke to the British parliamentary committee charged with drafting new legislation to tackle harmful online content.

Haugen told British lawmakers the easiest way to grow an audience on Facebook is by using “anger and hate.” She added, “The current system is biased towards bad actors, and people who push people to the extremes.”

The Facebook Papers, explained

U.S. lawmakers also criticized the social media giant over the litany of social harms outlined in the tens of thousands of documents the whistleblower took from Facebook, which resulted in a wave of stories by news organizations showing how the social media giant has privately and meticulously tracked real-world harms exacerbated by its platforms and ignored warnings from its employees about the risks of design decisions.

Facebook reported earnings late Monday, and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg took the opportunity to fight back against the criticism, defending the company’s reputation before spending the bulk of the investor call talking about the company’s major investments in virtual reality and hardware.

He called the stories being published by news organizations a “coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to paint a false picture of our company,” and spoke about how the media is treating deeply considered trade-offs between free speech and harm too glibly.

“It makes a good sound bite that we don’t solve this impossible trade-off because we are just focused on making money,” he said.

The case against Mark Zuckerberg: Insiders say Facebook’s CEO chose growth over safety

The trove of documents have triggered arguably the biggest crisis in the company’s 17-year history, and have added renewed urgency to a global debate about how to rein in the largely unregulated and enormously powerful technology industry. The documents include revelations that Facebook knew its software algorithms fuel increased polarization, hateful speech and misinformation, and were damaging to the mental health of some teenage girls.

The documents were disclosures made by Haugen’s legal counsel to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form as well as to a consortium of news organizations, including The Washington Post. Some of them were previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Speaking on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Haugen called for expansive and ambitious regulation as she launched a blistering critique of her former employer, accusing it of putting profits ahead of people, stoking division and harming children. Zuckerberg has described her account as “just not true.”

The news stories — as well as Haugen’s testimony — have triggered a call for legislative action in light of the Facebook revelations, as U.S. lawmakers and those abroad reiterated their commitments over the past few years to investigate Big Tech.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement that the documents show that Facebook’s leadership “chronically ignored serious internal alarms, choosing to put profits over people,” and added that the company is “obviously unable to police itself.”

How Facebook helped fuel Jan. 6

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called for the creation of a new federal agency to protect people’s personal data and ensure privacy as more daily activities move online, she wrote in an op-ed published online by NBC News.

Gillibrand has created legislation that would form the agency, which she proposes calling the Data Protection Agency.

“The approach companies like Facebook take to data is motivated not by protecting our privacy but by growing their profit and power,” the senator wrote.

The agency would be able to review “high-risk” data practices, address people’s privacy complaints and write new rules for data privacy, she said.

Congress will continue probing tech companies this week, with a hearing on Tuesday about kids’ safety online with testimony from representatives of Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube.

But legislative efforts in both the United Kingdom and the European Union are further along, with draft bills in both countries expected to come into law sometime in the first half of next year. Britain’s will introduce independent regulation for the digital world and enforce consumer protection measures.

“Frances Haugen has a lot of useful and important insights for any country that is looking to make a proper regulatory regime for big tech,” said Damian Collins, a British member of Parliament and chair of the joint committee on the Online Safety Bill. He described such legislation as “overdue.”

How Facebook failed to moderate the world

With Britain likely to become the first country to introduce such a framework, “it’s important to get it right,” he said. Sophie Zhang, another whistleblower who formerly worked for Facebook combating “inauthentic activity” on the site, spoke to the same committee earlier this month.

The debate in Britain surrounding online safety has become particularly emotionally charged in the wake of the murder of David Amess, a member of Parliament who was stabbed multiple times as he met with constituents earlier this month in the district he represented.

While police are still investigating the motive in Amess’s killing, the murder has triggered debate over online abuse aimed at public figures, including members of Parliament. The 69-year-old Conservative Party politician had voiced concerns about anonymous online abuse he had received before he died, calling for tougher laws.

Speaking to British lawmakers last week, Parliament member Mark Francois of the Conservative Party had said that he would like to “drag” Zuckerberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dawsey to Parliament’s bar, “if necessary kicking and screaming, so they can look us all in the eye and account for their actions, or rather their inactions, that make them even richer than they already are.”

In its current form, Britain’s online safety bill intends to extend the remit of Ofcom, the independent regulator that oversees television and radio, to include Internet content. It provides a legislative framework to ensure that tech companies act with a “duty of care” to protect their users from harm, and threatens fines of up to $24.7 million, or 10 percent of global profits, for breaches.

The European Union is also in the process of drawing up two pieces of legislation intended to strengthen rules for the digital sphere. Even as it does, Facebook has announced ambitious plans on the continent, last week announcing 10,000 new jobs in the E.U. to build its “metaverse” — what it bills as connected online worlds.

“The need for regulation has definitely strengthened,” said Alexandra Geese, a member of the European Parliament who spoke with Haugen before her identity was revealed. Haugen is expected to speak to lawmakers in Brussels on Nov. 8.

Geese said the revelations with the most impact had included details of a two-tiered world within Facebook, in which some high-profile users including politicians and celebrities are shielded from the site’s rules in a system known as “XCheck.”

“Now to have it in black and white with all the evidence does make a difference and it does have an influence,” Geese said, adding that Europe’s Digital Services Act needs to include obligations for nondiscriminatory universal terms and conditions.

Christel Schaldemose, the lawmaker charged with steering the new legislation through the European Parliament, said that she had spoken with Haugen before she had gone public and that the whistleblower’s message to her had been clear: “Regulate, please regulate.”

She said that she “really hoped” that Haugen’s testimony in Brussels would have an effect on lawmakers who have been less willing to back more stringent regulation.

“I think it will have an impact, and I hope it will have an impact,” she said.

Facebook itself has repeatedly called for updated regulation of the decades-old U.S. law that gives the technology industry immunity from prosecution for harms that take place on its services. The company has also funded an independent Oversight Board, made up of outside experts in free speech, to take on its thorniest content decisions in what Zuckerberg called a “model for self-regulation” on Monday’s earnings call.

The revelations did not appear to affect the company’s profits or stock price, and investors did not ask about them during the call. Facebook’s stock has been down 15 percent since a peak in September, but it is unclear whether the drop is due to the new public scrutiny or other factors.

The company said it would begin to report out earnings next quarter for its hardware division, Facebook Reality Labs, in which it has been heavily investing.

The company is also reportedly considering changing its name to reflect the new focus on virtual reality, hardware and the “metaverse” — a concept Zuckerberg has used to describe how all the services owned by his conglomerate would connect to one another.

Cristiano Lima contributed to this report.