Frances Haugen tells MEPs EU digital law could be ‘global gold standard’

9 Nov 2021

Image: Alexis Haulot/EP © European Union 2021

Speaking at the EU Parliament yesterday, Haugen praised the proposed Digital Services Act as a key chance to ‘safeguard democracy’.

The EU’s proposed Digital Services Act (DSA), which would see tech giants held accountable for content on their platforms, has been described by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen as a potential “global gold standard” that can inspire other nations.

Haugen said the DSA could prompt countries such as the US to make similar rules that “safeguard our democracies”. However, she warned the law needs to be strong and enforced firmly to not “lose this once in a lifetime opportunity”.

In an interview with CBS 60 Minutes last month, the former Facebook product manager revealed herself as the source of thousands of leaked company documents and claimed that profit outweighs public good at the world’s biggest social media platform.

Echoing some of the revelations she made in the interview, Haugen told MEPs yesterday (8 November) that Facebook’s leadership knows how to make Instagram safer but won’t do so to save profits, “damaging the health and safety” of teenagers and the broader community.

EU plans for Big Tech

The shared goal of the DSA and Digital Markets Act (DMA) to be debated by MEPs later this month is to change how digital content is ranked, advertised, moderated and removed to curb the monopoly large multinationals hold in the digital space – pitting tech firms against EU lawmakers.

In May, Facebook called on the Irish Government to delay the introduction of new online safety rules that could conflict with the DSA, while Apple CEO Tim Cook called out the DMA in June for not being in the “best interest for the user”.

At yesterday’s hearing, organised by the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, lawmakers asked Haugen a host of questions around regulating illegal and harmful content, content moderation tools, and whether targeted advertising should be banned.

In her responses, Haugen stressed the importance of ensuring companies such as Facebook publicly disclose data and how it is collected to allow people to make transparent decisions and prohibit “dark patterns” online. She added that individuals, not committees, should be held accountable for decisions made.

“Let me be very clear. Every modern disinformation campaign will exploit news media channels on digital platforms by gaming the system,” Haugen told MEPs in her opening statement. “If the DSA makes it illegal for platforms to address these issues, we risk undermining the effectiveness of the law.”

Warning against loopholes

In terms of countering disinformation and demoting harmful content, Haugen said that Facebook is substantially less transparent than other platforms and could do much more to make algorithms safer. “Almost no one outside of Facebook knows what happens inside of Facebook,” she said.

“The company’s leadership keeps vital information from the public, the US government, its shareholders and governments around the world.” Haugen also commended EU lawmakers for their content-neutral approach but warned against possible loopholes and exemptions.

The European Parliament will now discuss how the current DSA package, presented by the European Commission, can be amended and improved – with Haugen’s comments feeding into the work ahead of the vote.

Patrick Breyer, the Civil Liberties Committee’s rapporteur for the DSA, said that the Haugen hearing yesterday exposed the EU’s unwillingness to take back control of the digital sphere, especially in light of Facebook’s recent focus on the metaverse.

“Haugen warns that Facebook‘s virtual reality plans and the sensors in buildings it comes with will dramatically increase the threat of surveillance capitalism to our privacy. But the proposed European legislation fails to secure us a right to anonymity and fails to protect us against having our every action collected and used to manipulate us.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic