Testimony in Congress this week from whistleblower Frances Haugen should prompt action to implement meaningful oversight of Facebook and other tech giants, influential California Democrat Adam Schiff told The Guardian in an interview to be published Sunday.
“I think we need regulation to protect people’s private data,” said the chair of the House intelligence committee, he said.
“I believe that we must reduce the scope of the safe harbor that these companies enjoy if they do not moderate their content and continue to amplify anger and hatred. I think we need to insist on a vehicle for greater transparency so that we better understand the data. “
Haugen, 37, was the source of a recent Wall Street Journal report on misinformation spread by Facebook and Instagram, the photo-sharing platform owned by Facebook. He left Facebook in May this year, but his revelations have left the tech giant facing its toughest questions since the Cambridge Analytica user privacy scandal.
In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, Haugen shared internal Facebook reports and argued that the social media giant puts “astronomical gains before people,” harming children and destabilizing democracy by sharing inaccurate and divisive content.
Haugen compared the appeal of Instagram to tobacco, telling senators: “It’s like cigarettes … teenagers don’t have good self-regulation.”
Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said Haugen’s testimony could represent a “great tobacco” moment for social media companies, a reference to the oversight imposed despite testimony in Congress that their product was not harmful to executives whose companies knew it was.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has resisted proposals to reform the US Internet regulatory framework, which is widely considered woefully out of date.
It responded to Haugen’s testimony by saying that the “idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being” was “simply untrue.”
“The argument that we deliberately promote content that infuriates people for profit is deeply illogical,” he said. “We make money from ads, and advertisers are constantly telling us that they don’t want their ads to be found alongside harmful or angry content.”
The Democrat played a prominent role in the Russia investigation and in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. He is now part of the select committee investigating the deadly attack on the United States Capitol on January 6 by Trump supporters seeking to reverse his electoral defeat, an effort fueled in part by misinformation on social media.
In his book, Schiff writes about asking representatives of Facebook and two other tech giants, Twitter and YouTube, if their “algorithms were having the effect of balkanizing the public and deepening divisions in our society.”
Facebook’s general counsel at the 2017 hearing, Schiff writes, said: “The data on this is quite mixed.”
“It didn’t seem very varied to me,” says Schiff.
When asked if he thought Haugen’s testimony would create enough pressure for Congress to pass new laws regulating social media companies, Schiff told The Guardian: “The answer is yes.”
Yet as a seasoned member of a bitterly divided and legislatively sclerotic Congress, he also warned against over-optimism among reform proponents.
“If you bet against Congress,” Schiff said, “you win 90% of the time.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism