When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before members from five European Parliament committees on Monday late afternoon and early evening for a much-anticipated hearing, she did not come unprepared.
Referring directly to the EU’s work in progress for new regulation in the digital domain, the American data engineer said in her opening statement: “The Digital Services Act that is now before this parliament has the potential to be a global gold standard. It can inspire other countries, including my own, to pursue new rules that would safeguard our democracies. But the law has to be strong and its enforcement firm.”
Haugen praised the content-neutral approach taken by the EU’s draft legislation, which she said was the way forward to address the “systemic risks and harms” of social media platforms’ business models.
Facebook, in particular, was a platform with substantially less transparency than others, Haugen argued, referring to her testimony, used first by the Wall Street Journal for an investigation and published in September this year under the title ‘The Facebook Files’.
Nobody but the company itself has access to the data it collects and uses, making Facebook the sole “judge, jury, prosecutor and witness”, a situation that must not be tolerated by democratic societies.
She identified risk assessment and access to privacy-aware data streams as a necessary precondition of any meaningful regulation of social media platforms.
“The Digital Services Act that is now before this parliament has the potential to be a global gold standard. It can inspire other countries, including my own, to pursue new rules that would safeguard our democracies. But the law has to be strong and its enforcement firm” Frances Haugen
Only through access to data could researchers and regulators assess the risks of the whole system of profiling, targeting, and engagement-based ranking, Haugen argued, with the latter being “one of the root causes of the greatest systemic risks that social media poses to our societies.”
Therefore, any new rules must not be limited to illegal content, but also make sure that platforms are made responsible for systemic risks, and that the assessment process remains dynamic enough to keep pace with technological advances.
With the Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) Committee hosting and vice-chair Andrus Ansip (EE, Renew) at the helm, the hearing featured not only all the chairs of the other participating committees but also the rapporteurs and most shadows of both the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA) dossiers.
The hearing’s format - two rounds of short interventions by MEPs followed immediately by Haugen’s response - meant that, over the two-and-a-half-hour-long session, all members had the chance to have at least the most urgent of their issues addressed by the whistleblower.
DSA rapporteur Christel Schaldemose (DK, S&D) called Haugen’s appearance before the committees “timely”, as the Parliament indeed now had the “historic opportunity to regulate, and perhaps even take back control to society from the big tech companies”.
Dita Charanzová (CZ, Renew), who helped draft Parliament’s own-initiative report feeding into the Commission’s DMA and DSA proposals, pointed to the fact that in its current draft form, the DSA would force Facebook to re-establish a unit like the one Frances Haugen used to lead at the company, called Civic Integrity, which was intended to curb misinformation, but which was closed down after the 2020 US elections.
However, “in our proposal it would still be Facebook itself which would have to mitigate that risk”, Charanzová added, wondering “do you think that that this is a good proposal?”
In her response, Haugen warned that “if you have auditors that are paid by Facebook, you run the risk that, because they want to get hired again, they will likely not do as thorough a job as is necessary.”
“If you have auditors that are paid by Facebook, you run the risk that, because they want to get hired again, they will likely not do as thorough a job as is necessary” Frances Haugen
The Left Group’s vice-chair Marisa Matías paid tribute to the whistleblower saying, “what you have done is to have shown that platforms like Facebook have the power to ignore any of the problems that they create so that they can just protect their business.”
Axel Voss (DE, EPP), a member of both the participating Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) and the Special Committee on Artificial Intelligence in a Digital Age (AIDA) brought up Facebook’s newest corporate twist by renaming the company Meta and propagating the so-called metaverse.
Haugen confessed to her extreme concern about the metaverse: “partially because it illustrates a ‘meta problem’ of Facebook. They really like to move on, to prioritise growth and expansion over actually finishing what they built”.
She added that “the fact that they can afford ten thousand more engineers to build video games when they, allegedly, cannot afford ten thousand engineers working on safety, I find unacceptable and unconscionable”.
Having suggested ways to regulate the use of algorithms - by expert analysis of transparent data - Haugen explained that “there are probably only two hundred or maybe three hundred people in the world who have the depth of awareness of how these systems work as I do”.
Arguing that that represents a national security problem, she advised MEPs to reach out to those few, mostly “alumni of companies like Facebook or Google” for more expert input into its legislative process.
Without exception, members thanked Haugen, with most also praising her for her courage in coming forward.
She, in turn, reminded them of the importance for governments to protect tech whistleblowers, as she believed their testimonies will only become more crucial in protecting people from harm caused by digital technologies in the future.