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When Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, testifies to the European Parliament and French lawmakers this week, politicians are eager for more damning evidence of how the social network potentially ignored harmful and divisive content that put people at risk.
But there’s little in Haugen’s testimony that’s likely to surprise them. Many lawmakers are already preparing to use Monday’s hearing in Brussels — and separate meetings in Paris Wednesday — to promote their own ideas about the European Union’s content moderation rules, known as the Digital Services Act.
“I am not sure what she will add that is not already generally known,” said Dita Charanzová, a liberal member of the European Parliament who is working on the bill. Haugen’s testimony “is likely to reconfirm why we are currently working on the Digital Services Act.”
As the EU pushes ahead with new laws to force Facebook and other social media giants to be more accountable for what is posted online, officials and politicians have become well-versed on the inner workings of these platforms — and what measures could stop the most heinous material from spreading.
Yet as members of the European Parliament fight it out over the finer points of the bill — which could be passed as early as next summer — lawmakers who believe the current offering does not go far enough hope Haugen’s testimony will reinvigorate efforts to impose even more restrictions on these social networking giants.
“We need to open up the black box that is the algorithm systems and ask platforms to assess the risk that any algorithm or change of algorithm poses to the user,” said Christel Schaldemose, the lead EU lawmaker working on the bloc’s content rules.
“I am especially interested to learn if Frances Haugen has specific suggestions for our work on the Digital Services Act regarding the liability of online platforms and marketplaces, recommender systems and algorithms,” she added.
In response, Facebook, which recently changed its name to Meta as part of a rebranding exercise, said it agreed that new rules to police online content, including efforts to boost transparency on what people see online, were needed across the 27-country bloc.
“We support the work of regulators in Europe to achieve a legal framework that allows us to keep the internet safe,” Robin Koch, a Meta spokesperson, said in a statement.
Haugen’s whistle-stop tour of Europe — she visits Paris after Brussels, having already dropped by London and Berlin — comes as lawmakers are already fighting over how far the EU should go in policing social media. Politicians are likely to interpret Haugen’s testimony, whatever she says, as vindication of their own positions.
Some lawmakers, including Schaldemose, a Danish MEP shepherding the proposals through the European Parliament, have proposed to expand the powers of the Digital Services Act to include requirements for companies to turn off tracking for targeted online ads and so-called recommendation systems like people’s news feeds, which rely on algorithms to serve up personalized content.
“It’s not only about [taking out] deleting single pieces of content, but really that we need to look under the hood, and that we need hard regulation because the company is never going to do it on its own,” said Alexandra Geese, a German Green MEP who has proposed a ban on targeted advertising, referring to Facebook.
Conservative and liberal lawmakers view Haugen’s revelations as concrete evidence that the European Commission’s original proposals — published last year, and less expansive than the Parliament’s revisions — provide the right answers for the stumbling blocks outlined in Facebook’s internal documents, including claims the company put profits ahead of people’s safety. Facebook denies those allegations.
Those proposals include mandatory risk assessments so that social media companies analyze where things may go wrong; outside, independent audits to ensure firms are complying with the rules; and improved data access for third-party researchers and campaigners to determine what’s going on inside these walled digital gardens.
When Haugen met virtually with senior European Commission officials in October, for instance, many were not taken by her thoughts on how the bloc should regulate social media companies, according to three officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private. For some, her policy recommendations to rein in potential excesses were already what many in Brussels had been discussing for years.
Filling in the gaps
Still, lawmakers eager for greater change are expected to latch onto Haugen’s testimony as evidence Europe’s content rules need to go further.
During her recent discussions with U.K. politicians, for instance, the former Facebook employee highlighted how political ads often helped to spread misinformation across the global platform, arguing greater restrictions on those paid-for messages should be part of the upcoming British laws.
Currently, political ads are not included in London’s proposal, known as the Online Safety Bill, and several British politicians told POLITICO Haugen’s evidence may spur lawmakers to erase the exemption before the proposals become law.
“The great gift of the whistleblowers is that they focused our minds on the systemic nature of the harm,” said Beeban Kidron, a member of the U.K.’s House of Lords who participated in Haugen’s U.K. hearing on October 25. “Her evidence gave the committee an insider’s insight. It was a bit like seeing the inside of a gambling house. And as we all know, the gambling house always wins.”
Members of the European Parliament are also likely to use Haugen’s testimony in the ongoing battle over whether to limit targeted advertising within the EU’s content proposals.
Both the Commission and member countries have voiced their opposition to such plans, though if the former Facebook employee gives explicit evidence of how more guardrails on advertising could improve people’s online experiences, it may sway the debate ahead of the European Parliament’s revised bill on the Digital Services Act, expected sometime before the end of 2021.
“We need to open up the black box that is the algorithm systems and ask platforms to assess the risk that any algorithm or change of algorithm poses to the user,” said Schaldemose, the lead EU lawmaker working on the bloc’s content rules.
Et toi, France?
Haugen’s insider knowledge will also be on show in Paris where she will testify during two hearings Wednesday — one in the National Assembly and one in the country’s Senate. The hearings are also scheduled the same day as a vote to adopt EU legislation to better protect whistleblowers.
Yet just like in Brussels and London, her revelations about Facebook have not come as a surprise in the French capital.
“These platforms’ business model is toxic, perverse and dangerous. Haugen’s revelations only confirm it,” said Catherine Morin-Desailly, a centrist French senator working on an opinion on the EU’s Digital Services Act, who will attend the hearing.
In August, the country’s lawmakers introduced new rules for tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter as part of a broader strategy to tackle extremist Islamic content.
Mirroring the EU’s Digital Services Act, the proposals would require the largest platforms to take steps to prevent the viral spread of illegal content, publish annual risk assessments and allow regulators greater access to their data.
“What will be interesting is to understand the internal mechanisms, the decision-making processes at Facebook: who makes which decisions, with regards to which documents, at what time,” said Laetitia Avia, a politician from French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche party, who authored both the current proposals and now-defunct rules that required platforms to remove hate speech within 24 hours.
Avia will also participate in the French hearings on Wednesday. She added that Haugen’s testimony could lead to more transparency requirements — in terms of how people are targeted online — for social media platforms in the EU’s Digital Services Act, as well as France’s own version of the rules.
If the whistleblower shows that companies like Facebook monitor revenues generated by illegal content, as outlined in some of the company’s internal documents, that information could be included in the platforms’ upcoming transparency obligations, Avia argued.
But ahead of this week’s hearings, both in Brussels and Paris, politicians were not holding their breath for blockbuster revelations.
“[Haugen’s] European tour is strongly scripted, it’s a large-scale communication operation,” said Jean-Michel Mis, another La République en Marche politician who also will attend the Paris hearing, though he said he was “very happy” Haugen was coming to Paris. “What interests me is that we have the capacity to really ask her questions, not [to hear] the same lines.”
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