New Facebook whistleblower shines light on algorithmic harms. The solution is privacy legislation that makes Facebook’s surveillance driven business model illegal.

October 4, 2021

Congress can and should pass a privacy law strong enough to kill Facebook

Last night, the whistleblower behind a series of Wall Street Journal articles about Facebook revealed herself in interviews with 60 minutes and a number of major news outlets. Frances Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s civic integrity team, correctly points to algorithmic-amplification-that’s-maximized-for-engagement as being at the root of many of Facebook’s harms. Notably, this is something that human rights activists and experts have been saying for years, and it’s not just Facebook––other giants like YouTube employ the exact same surveillance capitalist business model. So the question is, in this watershed moment that could define the future of technology and public policy, what do we as a society do with this information?

Fight for the Future, a leading digital rights group known for organizing the largest online protests in human history in defense of net neutrality and against online surveillance, issued the following statement, which can be attributed to the group’s director, Evan Greer (she/her):

“The Internet is awesome. Facebook is terrible. This is a watershed moment where we need to fight for policy that preserves the democratizing and revolutionary potential of the Internet, while finally putting an end to the inherently harmful business model of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies.

We owe thanks to ALL of the whistleblowers and journalists who have helped shine a light on the grim inner workings of Facebook’s surveillance capitalist machine. The problem with Facebook’s products is not that they host user generated content. It’s that they use machine learning to show us the content that Facebook thinks we want to see (and suppress content that they don’t want us to see or think we don’t want to see), in order to keep us on the platform longer and sell more ads.

What Facebook sells is not an online message board where people can express themselves, it’s surveillance-driven algorithmic manipulation that’s maximized for engagement. Regulating the algorithms that companies like Facebook and YouTube use to recommend content can be difficult––many policies that attempt to do so run afoul of the First Amendment. Other suggestions, like changing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, would do more harm than good, silence the voices of marginalized communities, and could actually solidify Big Tech giants’ monopoly power. 

But here’s what we can do. Congress should pass a Federal data privacy law strong enough to kill Facebook’s current business model entirely. Outright banning harmful algorithmic amplification is hard, but lawmakers can absolutely make it illegal for Big Tech companies to engage in the mass surveillance and data harvesting practices that power the algorithms they use to recommend and suppress content. This is where lawmakers should focus their attention coming out of tomorrow’s Senate hearing. In the coming days, Fight for the Future will launch a major new campaign calling for a privacy law strong enough to end surveillance-driven algorithmic recommendation.

As I wrote in a recent Twitter thread, to get the right answers we must ask the right questions. Which problems are social media platforms merely shining a light on? Which problems are social media platforms actually causing or exacerbating? Of those problems, what is actually causing them? Is it networked communications as a whole, or is it specific to a business practice like algorithmic manipulation. And finally, which problems are social media platforms (even the problematic ones) potentially addressing or mitigating? If we don’t ask these questions then we will gravitate towards policy solutions that fail to address the root cause of Big Tech’s harms, or worse, policies that do more harm than good. 

There is no single silver bullet solution that will magically fix the Internet. But pushing our elected officials to finally get off their butts and pass a real Federal data privacy law would be a damn good start.”