Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen argued at a Senate hearing Tuesday that Congress needs to require more transparency from the social networking giant.
“I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more,” she said to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection.
Haugen, 37, a former product manager on Facebook's civic misinformation team, said that effective regulation of Facebook would need to start with transparency, including allowing “full access to data for research not directed by Facebook.”
The hearing largely focused on the company's impact on children and protecting kids who use online platforms. The senators' questions indicated bipartisan agreement that the content teenagers see is problematic and additional regulations are needed.
The top Republican on the subcommittee, Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, said that Facebook turned a blind eye to children on its sites. "It is clear that Facebook prioritizes profit over the well-being of children and all users."
- Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee about what she says are problems at the social media company that "harm children" and "stoke division."
- The hearing comes one day after a Facebook global outage, which has not been connected to Haugen coming forward to share internal documents from the company.
- Senators were in bipartisan agreement that Facebook does not protect children and teens on the platform and more regulations are needed.
- Haugen said Facebook implemented safeguards leading up to the 2020 election but then turned them off afterward. But the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol led Facebook to "break the glass" and turn them on again.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared publicly an internal memo to staff on Tuesday, after the hearing, arguing that the company's work has been mischaracterized.
"I'm particularly focused on the questions raised about our work with kids. I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the kinds of experiences I want my kids and others to have online, and it's very important to me that everything we build is safe and good for kids," he said.
"The reality is that young people use technology. Think about how many school-age kids have phones. Rather than ignoring this, technology companies should build experiences that meet their needs while also keeping them safe."
On Monday, Facebook had a massive outage that knocked out service to the social media giant's platforms for users around the world.
Haugen said in her opening statement: "I don't know why it went down. I know that for more than five hours Facebook wasn't used to deepen divides, destabilize democracies and make young girls and women feel bad about their bodies."
Haugen argued that allowing outside entities to see Facebook's data would help combat much of the problems that the social platform creates. External researchers would allow for regulators to build “sensible rules and standards to address consumer harms, illegal content, data protection, anticompetitive practices, algorithmic systems and more,” she said.
“As long as Facebook is operating in the dark, it is accountable to no one,” she said. Haugen previously worked at Google, Pinterest and Yelp.
Facebook needs an opportunity for Congress to step in and for them to declare "moral bankruptcy," said Haugen.
"We have financial bankruptcy because we value people’s lives more than we value money. Facebook is stuck in a feedback loop they can not get out of. Hiding this information because they feel trapped. They need to admit they did something wrong and they need to help solve these problems. That’s what moral bankruptcy is," she said.
Haugen compared Facebook to Big Tobacco and pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids.
“When we realized tobacco companies were hiding the harms it caused, the government took action,” she said. “When we figured out cars were safer with seat belts, the government took action. And today, the government is taking action against companies that hid evidence on opioids. I implore you to do the same here."
"Facebook says one thing and does another," Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said at the hearing. "Facebook's platforms are not safe for young people, as you said," he said, referring to Haugen. "Facebook is like Big Tobacco, enticing kids with that first cigarette."
The hearing Tuesday, and one last week at which senators questioned Facebook’s head of safety, Antigone Davis, were called after The Wall Street Journal reported on leaked internal research that appeared to identify Instagram’s negative effects on children and teens’ mental health.
"The recent revelations about Facebook's mental health effects on children and its plan to target younger audiences are indeed disturbing," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., at the start of the hearing on Tuesday.
Facebook said the Journal mischaracterized the findings, according to a blog post released 12 days after the article was published.
Before the hearing last week, Facebook said it would pause development of a version of Instagram aimed at children after mounting criticism from child safety groups and lawmakers.
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone dismissed Haugen's knowledge on child safety in a statement on Tuesday.
Haugen "did not work on child safety or Instagram or research these issues and has no direct knowledge of the topic from her work at Facebook," Stone said in a tweet during the hearing.
Stone posted another statement from Facebook's director of policy communications, Lena Pietsch, who sought to undermine Haugen's creditability, arguing that while at the company she did not have any direct reports and "never attended a decision-point meeting with C-Level executives."
"We don't agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about," said Pietsch.
Haugen also referred to the actions the platform took surrounding Jan. 6, the day of the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
"Facebook has been emphasizing a false choice. They said safeguards that were put in place [ahead of the 2020 election] implicated free speech. But the choices that were happening on the platform were about how reactive and twitchy was the platform, how viral was the platform," said Haugen.
Facebook changed the safety defaults in the run up to the election, she said, "because they knew they were dangerous and then returned them to their original defaults. They had to break the glass on Jan. 6 and turn them back on, and I think that’s deeply problematic."
Zuckerberg said in his statement that because the company makes money from advertisers it would be "deeply illogical" to place profits over the well-being of its users.
"We make money from ads, and advertisers consistently tell us they don't want their ads next to harmful or angry content," he said. "And I don't know any tech company that sets out to build products that make people angry or depressed. The moral, business and product incentives all point in the opposite direction."
When asked by Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., if breaking up Facebook would solve any of the issues discussed at the hearing Haugen responded she was against it.
"If you split Facebook and Instagram apart it's likely that most advertising dollars will go to Instagram and Facebook will continue to be this Frankenstein that is endangering lives around the world, only now there won't be money to fund it," Haugen said.
"So I think oversight and regulatory oversight and finding solutions with Congress is going to be key, because these systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up."