Four big takeaways from a tough hearing for Facebook

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before a Senate panel Tuesday that was fired up about the recent wave of revelations about the company.

Lawmakers focused on Facebook’s own research finding Instagram made body issues worse for 1 in 3 teenage girls and the platform’s decision not to share those results.

The Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection also touched on algorithmic amplification of dangerous content, Facebook’s approach to moderation outside of the U.S. and how to craft policy.

Here are the biggest takeaways.

Haugen emerges as a real threat to Facebook

Witnesses at the last few congressional hearings focused on Facebook have fit into two categories: employees with vested interest in promoting the company’s interests or experts without insider knowledge of the social media giant’s operations.

Haugen’s unique position as a recent former employee not speaking on behalf of the company was on full display during her testimony.

Several times during Tuesday’s hearing she was able to give clear explanations of technical terms, like meaningful social interactions or engagement-based rankings, that have gotten muddled in the past.

For roughly three hours she confidently answered questions from lawmakers, pulling out specifics from the documents she obtained from Facebook with relative ease.

When Facebook released a statement shortly after the hearing wrapped dismissing Haugen for never attending “a decision-point meeting with C-level executives,” lawmakers jumped to her defense.

Subcommittee Chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called it “offensive and demeaning,” while Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass), who didn’t even participate in the hearing, tweeted that “attempts to smear Frances Haugen, discredit her expertise and undermine her time at Facebook are shameful.”

Haugen won’t just disappear after Tuesday’s hearing either. She is being backed by a well-resourced whistleblower defense firm, and her slick website suggests more appearances are coming.

Facebook has been able to dismiss previous critics for not knowing enough about internal operations but will have their work cut out for them doing the same to a former employee and veteran of the tech space.

Zuckerberg can’t stay silent much longer

Senators said Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg should testify yet again before the committee given Haugen’s testimony.

“When it comes to what we would hear differently from Mr. Zuckerberg, we have these documents that have been turned over now, and it allows us to have a better look, so that we can do a deeper dive and be able to ask more direct questions,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told reporters.

Blumenthal said Zuckerberg needs to respond to why he rejected “seemingly worthwhile recommendations” as revealed through documents Haugen released.

During last week’s hearing with Facebook’s head of global safety, the executive, Antigone Davis, largely evaded questions about who would make final decisions on its controversial plan for “Instagram for kids” and other changes.

Haugen gave a more straightforward answer.

“Mark holds a very unique role in the tech industry, in that he holds over 55 percent of all the voting shares for Facebook. There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled. In the end, the buck stops with Mark. There is no one currently holding Mark accountable but himself,” Haugen said.

Blumenthal said if Zuckerberg “feels there are any inaccuracies” after Haugen’s testimony, then there’s even more of an impetus for him to testify.

“If he is in any way in disagreement with anything that has been said here, he’s the one who ought to come forward. He’s the one who’s in charge. He’s the algorithm designer in chief,” Blumenthal told reporters.

Lawmakers are fired up

Tuesday’s hearing built on the bipartisan outrage directed at Davis last week, highlighting the rare unity across the aisle especially in regard to children’s safety.

“I have rarely if ever seen the kind of unanimity on display today and Thursday. If you closed your eyes without knowing who was talking, you wouldn’t know whether it was a Republican or Democrat, you wouldn’t know what part of the country they were from. Because everywhere, red state, blue state, east and west, every part of the country has the harms that are inflicted by Facebook and Instagram,” Blumenthal said.

Proposals to update online privacy and content moderation laws have stalled despite the shared rage, but lawmakers’ signaled that Haugen’s testimony and the related leaked documents could be pivotal in pushing proposals across the finish line.

“I think the time has come for action, and I think you are the catalyst for that action,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

Klobuchar slammed the influence of lobbyists bogging down progress. “We have not done anything to update our privacy laws in this country, our federal privacy laws, nothing, zilch, in any major way. Why? Because there are lobbyists around every single corner of this building that have been hired by the tech industry,” she said.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the full Commerce Committee, said the “disturbing” revelations about Facebook’s mental health effects on children underscores the need for swift congressional action.

“They show how urgent it is for Congress to act against powerful tech companies on behalf of children and the broader public,” Wicker said.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) questioned Haugen on Facebook’s engagement-based ranking system and backed plans to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

“I would simply say let’s get to work,” Thune said.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a fierce proponent of updating children’s safety regulations, said Congress will take action whether or not Facebook cooperates on that front.

“Your time of invading our privacy, promoting toxic content and preying on children and teens is over. Congress will be taking action. You can work with us or not work with us,” Markey said. “We will act.”

Next steps remain unclear

Despite the bipartisanship, the next steps for policy were no clearer after questioning concluded.

Haugen herself identified more oversight and transparency as the solution to problems at the social media giant.

“As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable,” she said in her opening remarks.

She also pushed for the creation of a body with regulatory authority over Facebook staffed with people capable of understanding research produced about social media.

Those proposals, while well-received by senators, do not figure prominently in any legislative proposals introduced this Congress. And deep disagreements remain over the proposals that are out there that could address the problems outlined with Facebook.

Markey highlighted his Kids Internet Design and Safety and Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection acts as a way to protect children from the mental health harms of social media platforms like Instagram.

Blackburn, however, suggested that enforcing existing laws about kids online — the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act — would be sufficient.

Establishing a federal data privacy framework also came up during the hearing, but lawmakers have failed to reach a bipartisan consensus on what that would look like despite years of negotiations.

Klobuchar called for movement on antitrust, arguing that “consolidation allows dominant platforms” to control industries and buy out potential competitors that could improve social media. While she got new support from Thune for investigating potential monopolization, legislation to overhaul competition laws remains frozen in the House.

Haugen also came out against “the breaking up of Facebook,” saying that it would drain money from efforts to clean up the platform.

Some senators in both parties agreed that subpoenas should be issued to obtain the underlying data behind Facebook’s studies that the company has been reluctant to share, but other tangible action plans were hard to pull from the hearing.

Tuesday’s testimony appears likely to precipitate another congressional appearance by Zuckerberg as well, but what comes after all the hearings remains up in the air.

Via The Hill