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The Facebook Files Follow-Up: Facebook’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

Technology Policy Brief #64 | By: Scout Burchill | October 18, 2021

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Policy Summary

Frances Haugen, the whistleblower behind the Wall Street Journal’s hugely-consequential Facebook Files (see Brief #64 for more details) took center stage earlier this month, revealing her identity in a primetime interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes before testifying in front of Congress in a series of high-profile hearings. Haugen’s revelations, coupled with an hours-long complete blackout of all Facebook-owned platforms, added up to one of Facebook’s worst weeks ever.

And that was just the beginning of a long week for Zuckerberg and co. Compounding Facebook’s woes, progressive antitrust hero and seasoned Big Tech critic, Jonathon Kanter, was met with bipartisan plaudits on Capitol Hill, signaling that he will likely be confirmed as the head of the antitrust division at the Justice Department. Kanter’s confirmation will add jet fuel to the burgeoning antitrust movement picking up steam in Washington, which has Facebook high on the list of worst offenders. It’s hard to imagine an all time worst week for a company that has admitted to facilitating a genocide in Myanmar, but all things considered, from Facebook’s point of view, this one is definitely up there.

A big reason for this is Frances Haugen’s testimony, which managed to do something rare in our current political climate; it brought nuance and substance to a difficult and complex issue. The Facebook Files was the true star of the show, the meat of matter, as it were, but it was Haugen’s technical knowledge and formidable experience that might make the difference going forward. Instead of devolving into a carnival of geriatic Luddites performing their predictable political grandstanding and soundbite-level gamesmanship, Haugen’s presence brought sorely needed focus at a critical moment. Her ability to keep the discussion technically-grounded, specifically on the topic of algorithms, helped keep the culture war brain rottage at bay and move the overall conversation in a much more meaningful direction.

Although not all Big Tech reformists share the same ideas about how to go about making Big Tech companies less terrible for society, Haugen’s testimony presented a number of possible avenues for Congress to pursue, which are worth taking a closer look at.

Policy Analysis

It’s no surprise that of all the revelations exposed by the Facebook Files, the one that has gained the most traction in mainstream discourse is the piece about how their business model, which is built around maximizing engagement, is really bad for the mental health of individuals, and particularly young adults. Haugen argued this well, drawing a direct line to Big Tobacco’s infamous history of corporate coverups; 

“In the case of cigarettes, ‘only’ about 10% of people who smoke ever get lung cancer… so the idea that 20% of your users could be facing serious mental health issues and that’s not a problem is shocking.” Indeed, it was hard not to leave Haugen’s testimony without thinking that Facebook was destroying the mental well-being of adolescents and was an all around anathema to informed, thoughtful and compassionate discourse and communication.

While the internal documents Haugen sheperded to the light of day certainly contained a number of new and shocking revelations, Haugen’s policy recommendations have actually been floating around the halls of Congress for some time now. They include stripping social media platforms of their Section 230 protections for content their algorithms promote, greater company transparency that would allow researchers and the public access to Facebook’s data and an independent agency to oversee social media companies. Notably, Haugen did not argue for breaking up the company.

Stripping Section 230 protections would mean Facebook could be held liable for the content users post on it (see Brief #23 for more details). Critics of this approach argue that stripping these protections and not breaking up Facebook would only consolidate even more power in the Big Tech giants.

 Only massive companies like Facebook and Google would be able to allocate the necessary resources to carry out such massive content moderation regimes. In effect, Haugen’s policies reflect her tech background. 

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They aim to adjust the architecture of the platform, targeting the algorithmic incentive structure that prioritizes harmful and polarizing content, without addressing the topic of concentrated power.

Advocates of anti-trust view many of the societal harms wrought by Big Tech companies principally as a symptom of their market power. 

Anti-trust advocates argue that a combination of more competitors, as well as clear rules around harmful business practices like surveillance advertising and privacy would go a long way in solving many of the problems exacerbated by the Big Tech giants. While not a panacea in and of itself, breaking up the enormous power these companies have over society, the economy and issues of speech would greatly reduce their ability perpetrate harms and would prevent their power from being weaponized by political actors.

 

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Taking a different route altogether, some Big Tech reformists argue that Google and Facebook should be regulated as a public utility, like electricity or water services. Ohio is currently going this route by suing Google, claiming that the company should be declared a public utility and therefore cannot discriminate in how they list searches by prioritizing the placement of its own product, services and websites. In Facebook’s case, the government would treat it as common carrier, which would lead to a whole host of government-set regulations that would dictate how the business operates. 

While the road to reform is long and paved with uncertainty, Haugen’s testimony will certainly help guide the way. As Haugen points out, learning more about how Facebook’s algorithms and business model affects society is the only way to crafting good policy. One point all Big Tech reformists can agree upon is that more transparency is sorely needed.

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