As with fans of the Seattle Mariners, you don’t want to get your hopes up too soon.
But the recent cascade of damning revelations from a Facebook whistleblower may finally get Congress to take meaningful action against dominant tech platforms.
Although these platforms are popular and provide valuable services and jobs, there’s now abundant evidence that they’re misbehaving, abusing their monopolies and making decisions that cause harm.
This was driven home by documents and insights that former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen provided to The Wall Street Journal, “60 Minutes,” the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress, where she testified last Tuesday.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, the Edmonds Democrat chairing the powerful Commerce Committee, told me the revelations were a “turning point” that “provided a level of enlightenment” the public and her colleagues didn’t have before.
The Haugen material strongly suggests Facebook misled investors and the public about the effectiveness of its efforts to remove content that’s hateful and incites violence, including misinformation through the 2020 election to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Advertisers were misled and overcharged, and Facebook knew far more than executives admitted to Congress about how its Instagram product may harm teen girls in particular, her documents provided to the SEC allege.
In a statement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg objected to the “false picture of the company that is being painted” and said many of the claims are nonsensical.
But it will take much more than that to convince lawmakers and overcome the trust crisis facing his company.
Meanwhile state and federal lawsuits against Facebook and Google are proceeding, and lawmakers have an array of policy proposals queued up.
Congress must improve regulatory oversight and update antitrust laws that failed to prevent dominant platforms from getting so big and repeatedly abusing their monopolies, as documented by a House investigation last year.
“Fixing” Facebook may prove impossible for policymakers, in part because many potential remedies could conflict with the First Amendment. The overarching goal should be to restore competition, so people have more options to connect and find information, and companies adjacent to these platforms can survive or emerge.
Two Cantwell bills are a promising start. One would help ensure the survival of trusted news organizations, by enabling them to collectively secure fair payment from platforms for news content. This was among the recommendations in the House investigation into platform dominance and harms produced in 2020.
The other is the Consumer Online Privacy Rights Act, first introduced in 2019. It would bring more transparency to how platforms use personal information. It would also give users more control over that data, and the right to take their data from, say, Facebook to a competing service.
In an interview, Cantwell said there’s new momentum and bipartisan interest in the privacy bill after the Haugen disclosures, particularly about harms to children. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
Q: We’ve heard repeatedly about Facebook problems. Will there be follow-through this time, and what would that look like?
A: The issue is various people have liked or disliked what Facebook has done in response. What we see from the whistleblower is some clarification on the internals of how Facebook navigated some of those decisions themselves. I think it’s clear, it’s easier for my colleagues to join together. We had this Mark Zuckerberg appearance virtually a year ago … now here we are with I would say more bipartisan support for doing something about it. Obviously kids become a very unifying subject for a lot of people.”
Q: Do you and colleagues feel lied to by Zuckerberg and Facebook?
A: We had very specific requests of Facebook about the Rohingya (ethnic group in Myanmar, against whom Facebook was used to incite violence). We approached Facebook, our Senate office, and said you have to do something about this. They were very, very slow to act. And then later their representative came to see us, and we complained about it then, and they just said oh, we were overwhelmed by the amount of things going on, and now we have a new system in place. But now this whistleblower is saying they knew exactly what was going on and decided to do nothing about it because it made them more money. Not only that, she basically said they’re continuing to do that and not address the issue in Ethiopia.
Q: So this will finally prompt action?
A: It’s clear that this Facebook hearing created a lot of interest by our colleagues in moving ahead with legislative solutions. The headline is, yes, these hearings opened the door for a lot of people. It reminds me of the Enron stuff. People just didn’t want to believe it. And then when we started producing audiotapes, it was just like, wait a minute.
Q: Will bills be passed by year end?
A: I think yeah, we should try. It’s a key moment where people now are clearly focused. There are many issues here, some of them are competition issues. That’s not our committee, but there are important things.
One of the things that I brought up, I said these guys are putting out information, are they lying to advertisers?
Q: Should they be prosecuted?
A: It’s an interesting point. You (in the newspaper industry) have to learn to a different standard on libel, broadcasters have to live within the different standard or they are sued. And these guys not only don’t, then they’re telling advertisers something that’s probably not true about the advertising that they’re advertising with.