Facebook Under Pressure: Can Congress Regulate Big Tech?

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Facebook Under Pressure: Can Congress Regulate Big Tech?

There is a push for more consumer protection and safety features, and some are expecting more to blow the whistle

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony in Congress this week added to the mounting pressure on the tech giant, but some experts are doubtful it will spur Congress to make meaningful changes in Big Tech. Others are keeping a watchful eye on reforms and wondering whether others at Facebook will speak up.

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One thing is clear: Facebook cannot be trusted to self-regulate, said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University. After all, there is no financial incentive to do so.

“The question is whether Haugen and her documents will galvanize action on Capitol Hill after years of fruitless partisan bickering,” Barrett told TheWrap. “It’s possible, but far from assured, that today’s hearing will mark a real inflection point.”

At the hearing, Haugen offered her insider perspective on the harmful effects of Facebook’s services, pointing to the threats on children, democracy and the country’s national security. Many were impressed by her composure and persuasion, backed up by tens of thousands of pages of internal company documents, with lawmakers on both sides adamant that tougher oversight is needed in social media and tech.

Haugen was not shy about holding Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg accountable for the company’s behavior — and profit-motivated shift of its algorithms. “Mark holds a very unique role in the tech industry, in that he holds over 55% of all the voting shares for Facebook,” Haugen stated at the hearing. “There are no similarly powerful companies that are as unilaterally controlled. And in the end, the buck stops with Mark. There is no one currently holding him accountable but himself.”

Facebook’s business is actually not that different from the rest of tech and social media — it’s all about engagement and attention, Dave Pell, tech expert and investor, told TheWrap. “The big problem with Facebook is how big they are,” he said. “It’s not that Zuckerberg makes the wrong decisions for democracy. It’s that one unelected boy king has that kind of power in the first place.”

Pell agrees that Facebook cannot be trusted to change its own behavior. “The market rewards (Facebook’s) behavior. Congress will pass laws protecting consumers on social media, and the antitrust push will likely bring Facebook to the table and motivate Big Tech to negotiate. There’s momentum on both sides and parties (even though) they have entirely different motivations for regulating them,” he said.

Many of Haugen’s arguments and Facebook’s own research support the discussions experts have been debating in the industry for years — from problems of social media misinformation to user data privacy. For Jenny Lee, partner at Arent Fox, this development could push other federal agencies, including the FTC and FCC, to step in and regulate on some of the consumer privacy issues.

“It will be easier for agencies to wield existing regulations in the consumer protection space than for Congress to write and pass legislation. However, with increasing disclosures of corporate information, such as Haugen’s whistleblower reports, there is more data available that could serve as a catalyst for swifter Congressional action as well,” Lee said.

One of the major areas of concern emerging from these leaks is protecting children and teenagers on these social platforms. Facebook’s internal research found that Instagram was responsible for 32% of teenage girls on the app feeling bad about their bodies, and they felt worse from using the photo-sharing app. Many of the senators during the whistleblower hearing raised this concern as parents of teenagers.

“This is a moment in time not just to focus on Facebook and Instagram, but also other Big Tech,” said Lina Nealon, director of corporate and strategic initiatives at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “We’ve had enough hearings. We have the evidence. It’s time to act. … Instagram for Kids was an irresponsible idea from its inception, a fact reinforced by a recent investigation into how even Facebook knows that Instagram can be toxic for teens.”

Following reports leaked in the Journal and repeated criticisms from lawmakers, Facebook last month said it halted plans to develop an Instagram for kids ages 10 to 12. The company said it will consider the project at a later date. Nealon said her organization is advocating for regulation to raise the “age of digital adulthood” to 17 and require companies to implement more safety measures and device makers to make safety features a default.

“They continue to put the onus on parents and kids themselves,” Nealon said. “As a mother of four, it is near impossible to keep up with everything that’s changing on all the different platforms, what is turned on and off. It also assumes the privilege of involved parents.”

Haugen said she plans to speak to other members of Congress after Tuesday’s hearing, and senators on the committee have indicated they may invite Haugen back to testify again — spurring discussion of whether more whistleblowers and current employees at Facebook might come forward.

“If you were ever motivated to get up from your desk, and say this is all true, this is the moment,” Pell said.