Facebook whistleblower calls for review of Ireland’s data watchdog

23 Feb 2022

Frances Haugen at Web Summit 2021. Image: Eóin Noonan/Web Summit

Frances Haugen urged Ireland to lead by example when holding tech companies to account, as countries are watching its regulations closely.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said Ireland should learn from the criticism against its Data Protection Commission (DPC) and launch an independent investigation.

Speaking at a Joint Oireachtas Committee meeting on online disinformation and media literacy, Haugen said the DPC is “widely considered” to have stepped back in its responsibilities in enforcing GDPR.

“The tech companies on your shores have, once again, got away with it,” Haugen said. “As you create an independent, robust and effective online safety regulator, you must launch an independent review into the DPC so that it too can start to enforce the law thoroughly and boldly.”

Ireland’s role in policing Big Tech on data protection has faced scrutiny, with a great of deal of that placed on the DPC. Last December, the regulator was accused by Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems of improperly lobbying other EU regulators to allow Facebook to bypass user consent requirements for ad-related data collection. The DPC later rejected those accusations.

Haugen joined Facebook in June 2019 and worked as a product manager on the company’s civic misinformation team. On her personal website, she said that while working with the tech giant, she became “increasingly alarmed” by how it prioritised profits over public safety. She said she made the decision to blow the whistle on Facebook “as a last resort and at great personal risk”.

Speaking at the Joint Oireachtas Committee, she said that Governments and citizens around the world will be watching Ireland’s regulatory regime closely.

“Ireland has been part of the OECD for over 50 years, and has committed to promoting its standards for responsible business conduct,” she said. “It rests with Ireland to evaluate the facts and decide whether it will promote justice or the interests of a trillion-dollar profit machine.”

Focus on systems, not content

Haugen also spoke about Ireland’s Online Safety Bill, which was approved last month. One of the concerns she has with the bill is its focus on regulating content, such as deciding what content should be illegal or taken down.

She said that in order for this bill to be effective, Ireland should focus less on regulating content that comes through social media and put a greater focus on how that content is shared, spread and amplified.

“It is the systems of these platforms that should be your priority, not the content,” Haugen said. “Systems which promote harm, which target you with conspiracy theories, which drive people to hate and abuse.

“You cannot simply rely on the deletion or criminalisation of harmful content. Not only because that risks infringing on free speech, but because it doesn’t work,” she added.

The Digital Services Act

Throughout the committee hearing, Haugen spoke positively of the Digital Services Act (DSA), Europe’s attempt to shift the balance of power from the hands of Big Tech.

She said that currently Facebook is the only one that can “see behind the curtain” of its business, which makes it difficult to implement changes as only Facebook can suggest corrections.

Haugen said the DSA focuses on “risk assessments”, which make platforms like Facebook and its parent company Meta disclose risks associated with their business practices and share what their risk mitigations will be, while listening to concerns from NGOs and governments.

She added that measures like the Online Safety Bill and the DSA need to become aligned in their policies, as regulatory fragmentation “does nothing to help Irish citizens”.

“The DSA and Ireland’s Online Safety Bill should align on key principles which allow quick, effective regulatory implementation,” Haugen said. “There is, of course, no silver bullet to make the internet safer. The challenge is how to make things easier, not harder.

“Alignment between Ireland and the EU will be crucial in smoothing that path.”

Frances Haugen at Web Summit 2021. Image: Eóin Noonan/Web Summit via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic