Facebook whistleblower testifies before Congress again: 5 takeaways

US lawmakers want to hold Big Tech accountable, but have different ideas about how to do it.

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Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
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Queenie Wong
5 min read

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen first testified before Congress in early October. She returned Wednesday.

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Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower, urged US lawmakers on Wednesday to create new rules for online platforms after her leak of internal documents stirred energy toward regulating the online world.

"I came forward at great personal risk because I believe we still have time to act," Haugen told the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. "But we must act now."

How quickly lawmakers will act remains an open question as different ideas for rules are proposed. The hearing, titled Holding Big Tech Accountable: Targeted Reforms to Tech's Legal Immunity, was supposed to focus on potential legislative changes to Section 230, a 1996 federal law that shields online platforms from liability for user-generated content. But the nearly four-hour hearing quickly veered off in different directions, with representatives asking questions about topics that included child safety, short-form video app TikTok and censorship.

Haugen, who was testifying before Congress for the second time this year, appeared alongside a panel of other experts, including Color of Change President Rashad Robinson, Common Sense CEO James Steyer and Kara Frederick, a research fellow in technology policy at the Heritage Foundation. 

Government scrutiny of big tech platforms has heightened after Haugen leaked a trove of internal Facebook research to Congress and the US Securities and Exchange Commission to illustrate how the company puts its profits over user safety. Facebook , which rebranded itself as Meta, says the research is being mischaracterized even as it has also pushed for more regulation.

"We are a platform for free expression and every day have to make difficult decisions on the balance between giving people voice and limiting harmful content," a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. "It is no surprise Republicans and Democrats often disagree with our decisions – but they also disagree with each other."

Here are five takeaways from Wednesday's hearing:

Democrats and Republicans want to reform Section 230 for different reasons

Members of both parties want to reform Section 230, but their legislative proposals have different goals. 

Some of the bills would make internet companies responsible when they use an algorithm to amplify or recommend content that interferes with civil rights or posts that involve international terrorism. Other ideas include removing Section 230 protections for paid advertising. Republicans say that liability protections should be removed if companies censor speech based on political views, allegations that online platforms continue to deny.

One bill introduced by House Democrats, called the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act of 2021, would remove the liability shield when an online platform knowingly or recklessly uses an algorithm to "recommend content that materially contributes to physical or severe emotional injury." Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican, said she views the legislation  as a "thinly veiled attempt to pressure companies to censor more speech."

Democrats and Haugen, though, say the proposals aren't about picking good or bad ideas but making the platforms safer. Rep. Mike Doyle, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the committee, urged members of both parties to work on bipartisan legislation. 

"There's a bipartisan desire to reform the court's interpretation of Section 230," Doyle said, "and the American public wants to see us get things done." The lawmaker kicked off the hearing with anecdotes about how online platforms have been used by drug dealers to sell fentanyl-laced heroin and create fake profiles.

Child safety is still a top concern

Lawmakers from both parties and advocates said they are worried about online platforms harming the mental health of children and teenagers.

"The business model encourages engagement and constant attention, and that is very damaging to children because it means they spend more and more time in front of a screen," Steyer said.

Haugen's first appearance before Congress focused on child safety. It followed a series of stories published by The Wall Street Journal that included an article about internal research that showed Facebook-owned Instagram is "toxic" to teen girls. 

When people get depressed, Haugen told lawmakers, they'll self-soothe by scrolling through social media. Because many tech companies are founded by young people without children, the needs of children don't get as much support, she said. 

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri is expected to testify before Congress for the first time next week. The company has been testing a feature that encourages users to "take a break" from the platform. 

It isn't just about Facebook. TikTok is also under scrutiny

Lawmakers also expressed concerns about how TikTok, a short-form video app, surfaces content and its ties to China.

Chinese tech company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has pushed back against allegations it shares data with the country's government. TikTok has also said that US user data is stored in the US with backups in Singapore. 

Because TikTok uses an algorithm to show videos that users might be interested in watching, Haugen said the product is designed in a way that gives the company greater control over what people see. 

"There's nowhere near enough transparency in how TikTok operates, and I worry that it's substantially more addictive than even Instagram because of its hyper-amplification focus," she said. 

TikTok didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Proposed solutions go beyond Section 230 reform

Lawmakers aren't just looking at reforming Section 230 as a way to hold tech companies accountable. 

"We need more than one-off legislation to address what is a constantly evolving situation," said Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat. Welch said Congress should create a commission to oversee technology companies and test their algorithms so they're free of bias and wouldn't amplify harmful content. 

Advocates agree that lawmakers should take a multipronged approach. Haugen said she thinks there should be some sort of mechanism, which could be in the form of a commission to get the "truth" out of tech companies because they're currently "lying to us."

After a year and a half of the pandemic, Congress still has trouble using technology

At multiple points, lawmakers were interrupted by colleagues who were trying to join the discussion via Cisco Webex.

Rep. Bill Johnson, an Ohio Republican, was talking about protecting American consumers while enabling American innovation when a robotic female voice could be overheard instructing someone to enter the numeric password for the event.

"That's not my accent, as you can tell," Johnson said before continuing his remarks.