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EU lawmakers want a Facebook whistleblower to come and testify before the bloc’s parliament about revelations of toxic practices on the platform as they hammer out the fine print on new rules to regulate online content.
The lawmakers are working on an invitation for Frances Haugen, a former Facebook worker who was the main source for a series of reports on the company published by the Wall Street Journal, to present her findings to the European Parliament where lawmakers are working on a flagship content moderation bill, known as the Digital Services Act.
“The Facebook Files — and the revelations that the whistleblower has presented to us — underscores just how important it is that we do not let the large tech companies regulate themselves,” said Danish socialist Christel Schaldemose, the main MEP behind the Digital Services Act, who spoke with the American whistleblower two weeks before she revealed her identity on Sunday.
Haugen testified that internal documents showed how the social media giant was aware of, and did very little to address, a torrent of issues stemming from its platforms, including a program giving celebrities a free pass when posting illegal and harmful content, efforts to optimize the algorithm to push polarizing content, risks posed to teenagers as well as victims of human trafficking and political activists.
The tech company, which has 2.9 billion users and is worth $1 trillion, has been frantically attempting to assuage concerns, promising on one hand that it had “fundamentally changed” to anticipate and mitigate abuse on its platform, and accusing on the other hand the Wall Street Journal of inaccurate reporting and poor understanding of the internal document, and Haugen of “misleading” accusations.
Haugen is scheduled to testify in the U.S. Congress on Tuesday and later in the month in the U.K. Parliament. European lawmakers are discussing a potential invitation and have yet to send one.
EU’s upcoming content regulation
Meanwhile in Brussels, the European Parliament has been working on rules to force tech companies such as Facebook to crack down on illegal content, tackle systemic issues on their platforms such as disinformation, tweak their content and advertising algorithms and open up their data to regulators and researchers.
Now, revelations about Facebook’s inaction to tackle harmful abuse of its platform have given more ammunition for European lawmakers wanting to come down hard on Big Tech such as Facebook.
“I am extremely grateful for the courage of the whistleblower that finally gives us insights we need to effectively legislate.” said the representative for the Greens on the law, Alexandra Geese, who spoke to Haugen two weeks ago. “Until now, neither the public nor legislators have been able to gain such a deep insight into the mechanisms that have become far too powerful.”
Her comments were echoed by her fellow co-legislators, Liberal MEP Dita Charanzová and Conservative MEP Arba Kokalari, who praised the whistleblower’s work.
“It’s good that these files are coming out into the open so that they can be scrutinized by the public,” said Kokalari.
Geese said Facebook should release all of the documents but that the first revelations would enable European lawmakers to be more ambitious in the rules they set.
“The documents finally put all the facts on the table to allow us to adopt a stronger Digital Services Act,” she said.
Parliament has been reckoning with drastic changes to how giant social media platforms such as Facebook currently function.
Political parties in the European Parliament such as Geese’s party the Greens, but also some of the Socialists and Liberals have been pushing for a ban on targeted advertising and default turn-off of personalized content recommendation algorithms on newsfeed.
“The whole business model of profiling is called into question by these revelations,” said Geese.
The Digital Services Act would also enable regulators and researchers to access large social media companies’ data, algorithms, and better understand companies’ inner workings and societal impact.
“We must demand transparency from the tech companies and we must allow civil society, lawmakers and scholarly experts to have insight into the building blocks of the algorithms. This is the only way that we can have a public debate about the effects of these algorithms,” said Schaldemose.
While Parliament is aiming to vote on its revision of the text by the end of the year, EU institutions aim to finalize the Digital Services Act by mid-2022.
UPDATED: This story has been updated to clarify that the Facebook whistleblower described the contents of leaked internal company documents in public testimony.
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