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Facebook whistleblower hearing shows European policymakers are ahead of the U.S. in regulating Big Tech

The E.U. already has privacy laws governing tech companies and has proposed sweeping new rules for Internet platforms

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen speaks at the European Parliament in Brussels. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
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BRUSSELS — Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen received a warm reception Monday at a hearing with members of the European Parliament, who said her revelations about the social network’s inner workings could shape their ongoing work regulating the tech industry.

The nearly three-hour session highlighted how European Union policymakers are in a far more advanced stage than their American counterparts in efforts to regulate Facebook and other tech giants. Unlike in the United States, where Haugen’s congressional testimony was seen as a catalyst to regulatory efforts, European policymakers already have privacy laws governing tech companies and have proposed sweeping new rules for Internet platforms.

“Your revelations have confirmed my belief that we’ve let online platforms make up their own rules and regulations for too long,” said Liesje Schreinemacher, a Dutch member of Parliament. “With your call for more transparency and democratic oversight, you are really preaching to the choir in this house.”

Haugen testified that only Facebook knows the extent of the problems on its platform, and called for policymakers to consider dynamic regulations that could keep pace in a constantly evolving technology landscape. Many of the lawmakers’ questions focused on the Digital Services Act (DSA), proposed rules in Europe that would force large tech companies to submit to independent audits of their risk-management systems and make more data available to outside researchers, efforts to crack down on illegal content on social media.

Rather than new revelations, European lawmakers said Haugen’s testimony could provide evidence bolstering long-running efforts to impose limits on social networks and pressed Haugen for specific guidance on provisions in proposed legislation. They also sought the former product manager’s view on emerging technologies, like artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Haugen’s testimony hit on similar themes of her appearances in front of Congress and previous media interviews, emphasizing that Facebook leaves regulators in the dark and that a “critical starting point” for any new laws is transparency. She advocated for what she calls “1, 2, 3 risk assessments.” Under this proposal, tech companies would assess themselves before calling on outside parties to collect feedback from the community about harms on the platform.

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At a news conference following the hearing, Denmark’s Christel Schaldemose, the rapporteur for the DSA, said this vision for risk assessments resonated with her and she hoped Haugen’s testimony could be used as a “point of reference” as European officials try to reach an agreement on rules that would govern the future of content moderation and transparency.

“I certainly took a lot of things with me,” she said. “We need to have more transparency and accountability.”

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Haugen’s appearance before the European Parliament follows testimony in the British Parliament as well as meetings with German regulators, including Christine Lambrecht, the minister of justice and consumer protection. Haugen told members of the European Parliament that they have the opportunity to shape the path of tech regulation around the globe, as countries from the United States to India debate new rules to regulate American tech giants. She said that the DSA has “huge potential.”

“If you get the DSA right for your linguistically and ethnically diverse 450 million E.U. citizens, you can create a game-changer for the world. You can force platforms to price in societal risk to their business operations so the decisions about what products to build and how to build them is not purely based on profit maximization,” Haugen said. “You can show the world how transparency, oversight and enforcement should work.”

However she warned policymakers against creating loopholes to the rules that could be exploited, particularly by exempting content from news outlets from the DSA. She said such exemptions could be exploited by disinformation operations.

“If the DSA makes it illegal for platforms to address these issues, we risk undermining the effectiveness of the law,” Haugen said. “Indeed we may be worse off than today’s situation.”

European policymakers expressed concern about making sure their regulatory proposals were “future proof,” pressing Haugen for advice to ensure that they keep pace with the quickly evolving technology. Parliament members asked Haugen about the company’s recent decision to rebrand itself as Meta and push into the “metaverse,” a virtual world where people could gather, work and shop.

“I’m concerned about the level of obstruction that is created and how removed from reality you are,” said Ibán García del Blanco, a Spanish member of the European Parliament. “We do feel that it is important for us to be able to identify a road map for dealing with these challenges, like metaverse. It’s only right at the beginning of the road, and it’s going to develop so much more in the foreseeable future.”

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Haugen warned that the metaverse could result in more sensors that could result in more data collection. She also said if more employers start having meetings in the metaverse, it could make it harder for people to opt out of using Meta products. But she said it might be positive in some ways, because in virtual reality, people would probably be interacting with small numbers of people, rather than enjoying a massive megaphone like they currently find on Facebook.

Meta spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement that the company has “always had the commercial incentive” to remove harmful content. The company has more than 40,000 workers who have “one job: keep people safe on our apps,” he said. However, Haugen said in her testimony that the company’s investments have been insufficient, with roughly 3.6 billion monthly active users across its family of apps.

Like U.S. lawmakers, European policymakers also asked extensive questions about Facebook’s impact on children and teens, as well as the role its algorithms play in amplifying polarizing political content.

Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said in an interview following the testimony that she hoped it would impel her colleagues to move more quickly and support legislation that would force more rigorous oversight of tech giants.

“I do hope that today’s hearing will give us a push in the direction of stricter legislation,” said in ’t Veld, who was involved in drafting the European data privacy law known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which went into effect in 2018. “I don’t think we can afford the luxury to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt.”