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Facebook whistleblower details 'moral bankruptcy' to Congress

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager, urges US lawmakers to finally legislate real oversight of the social network.

Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies before Congress.

Whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, testifies before Congress. 

Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who leaked thousands of internal documents about the company, urged US lawmakers to provide more active oversight of the social network, alleging that its products "harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy." 

In testimony on Tuesday, Haugen told senators that the giant social network is failing in its potential to bring out the best in people and instead is prioritizing its profits over the public good. Lawmakers, she said, should step in to address the company's increasingly destructive role in society. She suggested the company needs greater oversight and should be required to disclose more information. She also expressed support for revising Section 230, a key internet law.

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"Congress can change the rules that Facebook plays by and stop the many harms it is now causing," Haugen told a Senate subcommittee.

Haugen catapulted to public view on Sunday during an interview with the CBS news program 60 Minutes in which she revealed herself as the whistleblower who provided documents used in a series of Wall Street Journal articles about how much Facebook knows about the damage its services cause. The 37-year-old gathered thousands of pages of research and communications, many of which showed Facebook is aware of the harm the company's platform can inflict, including on teenagers' mental health. 

The hearing underscored how the world's largest social network continues to face scrutiny over the potential ill effects of its platforms. Facebook, which suffered a massive outage Monday, has been plagued by scandals, including some involving data privacy. US lawmakers from both parties will likely use Haugen's testimony to inform what type of regulation could help keep social networks such as Facebook more accountable. Last week, Facebook's head of safety, Antigone Davis, appeared before Congress. 

Facebook contends that The Wall Street Journal mischaracterized its research. It says its platform also has benefits, such as helping people keep in touch with family and friends. The company has paused the development of a children's version of Instagram, a photo- and video-sharing app it owns. 

Haugen said choices made within the company are "disastrous," though she noted the problems are complex. 

"During my time at Facebook, I came to realize a devastating truth. Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook," Haugen said. Facebook can move forward, she said, by admitting that executives made bad choices and "declaring moral bankruptcy."

Several senators used the hearing to target Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, said the tech billionaire was dodging his responsibility.

"Zuckerberg ought to be looking at himself in the mirror," Blumenthal said. "His new modus operandi: no apologies, no admission, no action. Nothing to see here."

Speaking directly to Zuckerberg, Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said: "Your time of invading 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. But we will not allow your company to harm our children and our families and our democracy any longer." 

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone tweeted the company's response to Haugen's testimony, noting that the whistleblower worked at the company for fewer than two years and never attended a meeting with certain executives. "We don't agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it's time to begin to create standard rules for the internet," the statement said.

Stone's earlier tweets brought a quick response from Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who is the ranking member of the subcommittee. She invited Stone to testify under oath.

Monika Bickert, vice president of content policy at Facebook, also told CNN the social network demotes the visibility of clickbait because the company wants people to have a good experience on the platform. 

In an unusual demonstration of bipartisanship, senators from both sides of the aisle expressed the need to take action on regulating the social network.

Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, used the hearing to champion a proposal that would govern how social media platforms filter content. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington, promoted privacy legislation.

Blumenthal, Markey and Rep. Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, have reintroduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act. The bill would ban features such as "likes" and follower counts for users under the age of 16. The legislation also addresses other issues such as manipulative marketing and the amplification of harmful content. 

Lawmakers have also explored revising Section 230, a federal law that shields internet companies from liability for user-generated content. Haugen said Facebook would likely eliminate engagement-based ranking if lawmakers made Facebook responsible for its rankings by reforming the law.

"Facebook knows that when they pick out the content that we focus on using computers, we spend more time on their platform. They make more money," she said.