Open Facebook's 'black box,' whistle-blower tells House panel

By The Washington Post Time of article published Dec 2, 2021

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The whistle-blower who revealed thousands of internal Facebook documents is renewing her call for regulation of a social-media business model that she says puts profits over the health of its users and global democracies.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, is back on Capitol Hill Wednesday testifying before a House subcommittee on technology, as lawmakers weigh proposals to reduce the legal liability protections enjoyed by online platforms under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

"Facebook wants you to get caught up in a long, drawn-out debate over the minutiae of different legislative approaches," Haugen said in her opening statement. "Please don't fall into that trap. Time is of the essence."

She urged lawmakers to "open up the black box at Facebook" because the company can't be trusted to be transparent about how the platform's algorithms shape user experience.

While there's remarkable bipartisan support for tougher internet regulation, there's scant consensus on the best way to set guardrails for a complex and ever-changing industry. Republicans have railed against content moderation decisions that silence or downplay conservative viewpoints -- Ohio Rep. Bob Latta, the subcommittee's ranking Republican accused tech companies of being "bad stewards of their platforms."

Democrats have focused on legislation that would force platforms to take a more active role in protecting vulnerable groups online, as reflected in the four proposals before the subcommittee Wednesday, which would chip away at Section 230 liability protections.

Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, said the legislation's goal is to clarify this provision, written for a much earlier version of the internet.

"These targeted proposals for reform are intended to balance the benefits of vibrant free expression online while ensuring that platforms cannot hide behind Section 230 when their business practices meaningfully contribute to real harm," Pallone said.

Rashad Robinson, president of online racial justice organization Color of Change, said all four of the bills are "essential for reducing the tech industry's harmful effects on our lives," and he urged Congress to not leave tech companies to regulate themselves.

"Congress is rightly called to major action when an industry's business model is at odds with the public interest -- when it generates the greatest profits only by causing the greatest harm," Robinson said in his prepared remarks, pointing out the disproportionate impact on already marginalized groups.

James Steyer, head of the family-focused nonprofit Common Sense Media, who also is also testifying Wednesday, said he expects Congress to coalesce around measures to improve privacy, hold platforms accountable and address the concentration of industry power in the hands of companies like Meta, Amazon.com, Apple and Google.

Next year "is going to be the year of tech legislation and regulation," Steyer said in an interview before the hearing. "It's not about Democrats and Republicans. It's about America's kids and families and our democracy and our sense of right and wrong."

The internal documents that Haugen shared with journalists, Congress and securities regulators over the past several months revealed that leaders of Facebook and its parent company, now known as Meta Platforms Inc., were aware of the mental health and societal risks posed by its platforms. The revelations have sparked renewed outrage in Washington, where Facebook was already encountering antitrust scrutiny and criticism over the spread of misinformation concerning the coronavirus pandemic and last year's election.

In previous testimony before a Senate subcommittee and the U.K. Parliament, Haugen encouraged lawmakers to regulate how platforms speed information around the internet. She said online tools should be more chronological and "human-scaled," rather than prioritizing engagement that can draw more advertising dollars -- but can also make harmful content quickly go viral.

Facebook has dismissed Haugen's allegations, saying she didn't work directly on some of the issues she raised, even though she provided Congress with relevant documents. The company has also pushed back on claims that its platforms drive polarization and has pointed to investment in content moderation and automated systems to identify harmful information.

While some elected officials, including former President Donald Trump, have called for Section 230 to be repealed entirely, most lawmakers have proposed a more targeted approach that would hold tech companies liable for business decisions that influence the flow and quality of information. Congress is increasingly looking to regulate how platforms use algorithms to shape a user's experience.

Haugen has met with other congressional committees behind closed doors, including the House Intelligence panel, according to a committee aide. Other panels also have access to the trove of documents she copied before leaving Facebook.

Haugen, who worked on Facebook's Civic Integrity and Threat Intelligence teams, has promised to be a resource for lawmakers investigating how Meta's platforms could have been used to undermine national security and public confidence in democratic elections.

Adam Mosseri, the head of Meta's photo-sharing service Instagram, will testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security next week about the risks his platform poses for young people. In a video posted online, Mosseri said he'll talk about some recent changes at Instagram designed to provide more privacy options for teens and give parents more control.

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