Hand holding futuristic Smartphone Against Trees and Meadow in the Park

Last week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the European Parliament. During the long Q&A session that followed her presentation, Ms Haugen defined the European Parliament’s commitment to defending citizens’ rights as “A light in the darkness”. She also asked for increasing supervision of big tech platforms, as they have shown they are ready to subordinate respect for rights and value to profits.

Ms Frances Haugen is an expert in algorithmic product management and a former employee of Google, Pinterest, Yelp, and Facebook. She has first made available her experience and the documentation collected during her time with Facebook to the Wall Street Journal in September 2021, with the intent of demonstrating that the company prioritises profits over the well-being and rights of users. In addition to the European Parliament, she brought her testimony before the US American Senate and the British Parliament in October 2021.

“I came forward because I feel that the choices made by the Facebook leadership are a huge problem for minors, public safety and democracy.”, clarified Ms Haugen during her presentation. She then described the dangers inherent in engagement-based rankings, explaining that people are drawn to engage with extreme content way more than with other kinds of content.

“During my time with Facebook, I saw them repeatedly resolving conflicts between their users’ safety and their profits in favour of the latter, building a system which exploits division, amplifying extremism and polarisation”, she then stated. “The right answer to this emergency is new rules and standards. Transparency and access to data are critical starting points for effective regulation: Facebook cannot remain the judge, jury, prosecutor and witness of its own processes. If carefully written and strictly enforced, the Digital Services Act has the potential to be a global gold standard, inspiring other countries to pursue new laws safeguarding our democracies.”

During the extensive Q&A session that followed, Ms Haugen had the chance to explain her views on how an effective regulation could be conceived, starting from the fact that any effort should be content-neutral. This assumption stems from many reasons, not least that Artificial Intelligence still has trouble recognising harmful content. Yet, it would be unthinkable to monitor three billion users through human moderation.

In addition, using a content-based approach would cause further disparity because Facebook and other platforms would focus their efforts on the most commercially interesting languages. In fact, this is already happening: the security systems provided for English language users are much more developed even than those used for many of the other languages of the Member States of the European Union.

In Ms Haugen’s view, Facebook and the other big tech multinationals should be forced to reveal how their algorithms work; their method of hiding behind the trade secret’s shield is unacceptable. There is a strong need for building an entirely new ecosystem of people capable of understanding how such platforms and their algorithms work. Currently, the number of competent people on this topic is really limited. Most of them work for the same platforms since there is virtually no other way to acquire such expertise.

The revelations Ms Haugen disclosed in front of the European Parliament are hard to overlook. They make it even more clear how Facebook has profited from its dominant position by letting misinformation be spread and by applying harmful algorithmic practices to their users without their knowledge, which is a problem common to all platforms that use a form of recommendation system. It is time to write rules that restrict their ability to put profit before citizens’ rights and well-being and build institutions that have the authority and means to enforce them. We cannot allow the interests of a few to wreck our democracies and damage the values for which previous generations of Europeans have fought.

A healthy and balanced digital environment in which democracy can proliferate again is one of the cornerstones on which Re-Imagine Europa Task Force “Democracy in a Digital Society” is developing its strategy for a more inclusive and fair society. Since the Task Force’s first meeting, held in 2019 in Berlin, we have dealt with the relationship between democracy, rights and the digital revolution.

To keep informed about the effects of technology and digital communication on democratic institutions, follow our social channels and check the new homepage of Re-Imagine Europa’s Democracy area.

There will soon be more, so stay tuned!