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Facebook’s ‘big tobacco moment’ – will it U-turn to put people before profits? 

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has rightly been commended for speaking out about her former employer accusing the platform of putting “astronomical profits before people” – claiming the big tech company knows about the harm of some of its products, but does nothing about them prioritising growth and its shareholders over the safety and wellbeing of its three-billion-plus users. 

During evidence given both to US senators in Washington earlier this month and to UK Parliament  (25 October) Haugen has been applauded on her courage and bravery for speaking out. During a Parliamentary hearing scrutinising the Draft Online Safety Bill, (a piece of legislation that places a duty of care on social media companies to protect its users) MPs and Peers heard Haugen say she had repeatedly flagged concerns internally that critical teams were understaffed. She highlighted how the lack of internal reporting systems within Facebook was a “huge weak spot” – Haugen did not know how to escalate her concerns and did not have faith in the internal chain of command. 

 When she did raise concerns, she was told to accept under-resourcing and – in a company that “lionises a start-up ethic” – there was a lack of incentive to help with concerns. As she became increasingly alarmed by the decisions taken by Facebook, Haugen’s own website states that “as a last resort and at great personal risk, (she) made the courageous decision to blow the whistle on Facebook”. 

Haugen highlighted the importance of regulation and from her testimony, it is clear that Facebook’s internal oversight and transparency are not working. Haugen herself said that “regulation could be good for Facebook’s long-term success”. There needs to be a radical overhaul of Facebook’s culture, its internal accountability systems and regulatory oversight which will have benefits for both Facebook the company and its users. As Haugen states, “if you make Facebook safe and more pleasant, it will be a more profitable company ten years from now because the toxic version is slowly losing users”. 

Her testimony to UK parliament forms part of a wider tour of law and policy makers around the world as she exposes Facebook’s lack of regard for public safety.  

Haugen is not your average, run-of-the-mill whistleblower. With the support of glossy PR firms in both the UK and US, advice from well-connected Washington lawyers and financial backing from the billionaire eBay-founder, Pierre Omidyar, Haugen has the resources many whistleblowers can only dream of. This is not to diminish what Haugen has achieved, but to highlight that whistleblowing is far more difficult than it should be, and that to successfully raise concerns publicly requires an immense amount of determination.  Whistleblowing is not easy. Whilst, in an ideal world, Protect would like to see the raising of concerns as a daily practice and something that is encouraged as such, it currently takes a lot courage to speak out against the majority. This is exactly what Haugen did; tackling Zuckerberg empire head on in what is being dubbed as “Facebook’s big tobacco-moment”. 

Here at Protect, we want to celebrate Haugen. Haugen has demonstrated the power that whistleblowing can have in bringing together people and lawmakers globally on an issue and, hopefully, bringing about positive change.  

Now it is time for Facebook, governments and regulators to act. Whether they will, is a wholly different question, but Haugen has done her bit and warned against cultures where “good people who are embedded in systems with bad incentives are led to bad actions.”  She has highlighted to the world the fundamental issue with Big Tech, its damaging culture and systems. As long as the momentum from those sharing her concerns is not lost, Haugen one step closer to her goal of having a “social media that brings out the best in humanity”. 

 

By Protect Parliamentary Officer, Rhiannon Plimmer-Craig