Sunday

5th Dec 2021

Facebook whistleblower: EU rules can be 'game-changer'

  • Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said the company's feed recommendation system has been proven to 'amplify division, extremism and polarisation' (Photo: European Parliament)
Listen to article

New European rules for big tech companies could become an international "game-changer for the online world", Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen told MEPs on Monday (8 November).

In her opening statement, she pointed out that Facebook has become a $1 trillion company at the expense of citizens' safety, arguing that "a safer, more enjoyable social media is possible".

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The Facebook ex-product manager, last month, leaked a trove of internal documents, known as the 'Facebook Papers,' which comprise a mix of strategy memos and research studies.

These include, for example, reports on the compulsive use of social media or the impact of Instagram on teenage girls' mental health.

During her intervention in the European Parliament, Haugen said she came forward when she realised that "almost no one outside Facebook knows what is happening inside Facebook".

"Facebook repeatedly encountered conflicts between its own profits and our safety, and Facebook consistently resolve these conflicts in favour of its own profits," she said, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg's company was proven to be harmful for children and for democracy.

The hearing with EU lawmakers came at a timely moment, with the EU Parliament and member states finalising their position to enter into negotiations over two landmark pieces of digital policy.

The proposals for content moderation under the Digital Services Act (DSA), together with the provisions for so-called 'gatekeepers' of the Digital Markets Act, are seen as the European Commission's most ambitious bid to increase regulatory oversight over big online firms like Facebook.

But since some MEPs consider that the DSA proposal does not go far enough, many hope Haugen's insights can feed into the ongoing committee work and trigger stricter rules.

Haugan's revelations confirmed that "self regulation by the companies themselves is completely failing," Spanish socialist MEP Juan Fernando Lopez warned.

No exceptions

The DSA can become a "global gold standard" and inspire other countries to address the systemic risks and harms of big tech business models, but new rules should not only address illegal content but also algorithms, the Facebook whistleblower also said.

For Haugan, Facebook's feed recommendation system was proven to "amplify division, extremism and polarisation".

"They have known for years that political parties in Europe were running more extreme ideas, at least in social media, because that's the only thing that gets distributed [or viral]," she told MEPs, denouncing Facebook's ability to hide from the public the actual behaviour of the platform.

She also pointed out that potential exceptions could water down the effect of EU legislation.

While welcoming the strong emphasis of the bill on data-sharing and open access to independent researchers, the whistleblower warned MEPs that big tech companies would leverage exceptions for data access related to trade secrets, if the derogations were approved.

She also called for a 'content-neutral' approach, urging MEPs to reject any type of media exceptions under content-moderation rules.

A group of media experts and fact-checkers recently took a similar position, arguing that disinformation and fake news were usually presented as credible journalism on social media.

'Wild West'

After meeting earlier on Monday with Haugen, the EU commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, said in an emailed statement: "Europe is serious about regulating what still resembles a digital Wild West".

"The increased lobbying efforts, we have witnessed are in vain," he also said, calling on co-legislators to adopt the new rules in the first half of 2022.

Tech companies like Facebook have scaled up their lobbying efforts in Brussels, since the upcoming rules could reshape their business models, which are based on displaying personalised advertising thanks to users' data.

Google, Facebook, and Microsoft dominate lobbying efforts in EU digital economy policies, with an annual budget of over €5m each.

Facebook's annual advertising revenue in EU markets was estimated to be worth over €23bn.

But Haugan is not the only one who wants meaningful reform.

A new survey revealed on Monday that 76 percent of people in Germany, France, Spain and Italy were concerned about the risks that disinformation or hate speech can pose to society, with the vast majority (83 percent) arguing that Europe should better regulate online services.

Twitter 'best' at applying EU disinformation code

The European Commission has introduced beefed-up rules tackling disinformation. Although the code is voluntary, it is set to be embedded into the Digital Services Act, where sanctions could be imposed.

Column

Four tweets broke Facebook - good news for EU regulators

Facebook PR chief Nick Clegg tried to make us believe that it is comparable to a phone company. Nothing could be further from the truth. His company decides which messages users see. It literally "ranks" content.

Opinion

Only EU can tame Zuckerberg's Facebook

When the EU speaks, Silicon Valley listens. The tech titans know that the EU matters. Which is why it's so crucial that following the lobbying from Zuckerberg, on disinformation, the EU gets regulation right.

Experts warn MEPs on tracking ads: 'Don't be fooled'

EU lawmakers have agreed not to ban tracking-based advertising, after a lobby campaign. But experts have warned MEPs these techniques pose a risk for users' privacy rights and the EU's digital sovereignty.

News in Brief

  1. Covid: Belgium might close schools and cultural activities
  2. EU consumers can sue Facebook, judge advised
  3. French centre-right tilts toward Pécresse
  4. EU urged to blacklist Israeli spyware firm
  5. Austria's ex-chancellor Kurz quits politics
  6. EU agency: Omicron to be over half of infections 'within months'
  7. New German restrictions target the unvaccinated
  8. EU commission unveils proposal to digitalise justice systems

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew report reveals bad environmental habits
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersImproving the integration of young refugees
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNATO Secretary General guest at the Session of the Nordic Council
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCan you love whoever you want in care homes?
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals

Latest News

  1. Belgium tightens Covid rules as health system 'is cracking'
  2. EU and US tighten screw on Lukashenko
  3. Belgian impasse leaves asylum seekers on snowy streets
  4. EU 'missed chance' to set fossil-fuel subsidies deadline
  5. EU energy ministers clash amid gas price uncertainty
  6. ECJ told to dismiss Poland and Hungary rule-of-law challenge
  7. Covid: what Germany got right - and wrong
  8. Quick Take: Enrico Letta

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us