Press play to listen to this article
As soon as Frances Haugen landed in Europe, she was given the VIP treatment. She met senior officials in Paris, Berlin and London. She testified to lawmakers in Brussels. She rubbed shoulders with celebrities in Lisbon.
She hasn’t done it alone.
As the former Facebook data scientist prepares to return to Puerto Rico, her sun-drenched home since leaving the tech giant, a well-funded lobbying operation — run by a former aide to Hillary Clinton — has opened doors across the European Union, aiding Haugen’s mission to persuade the bloc’s lawmakers to pass sweeping legislation to crack down on social media.
The professional whistleblower tour has proven successful. European lawmakers have applauded her at multiple hearings, and she has met with the likes of Christine Lambrecht, Germany’s federal justice minister, British Home Secretary Priti Patel, and, on Thursday, Cédric O, France’s digital minister.
Those eager for the EU’s upcoming content rules to go further in curtailing the likes of Facebook have latched onto her insider knowledge, urging for even more changes, including limits on how digital ads can target people online.
But Haugen’s relationship with Reset, an anti-tech lobbying shop with operations across the EU, U.K., U.S. and Australia, also raises concerns about who is driving her push to rewrite Europe’s online content rules — proposals that will likely steer the global debate over how social media giants should be held more responsible for users’ online actions.
For Ben Scott, Reset’s founder and an outside technology adviser to Clinton’s failed 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, there is no conspiracy in his group’s help in guiding Haugen through the complex world of European policymaking. His operation receives up to $10 million in annual funding from the philanthropic organization Luminate, a nonprofit group established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and the Sandler Foundation, a U.S.-based donor supporting the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and media outlet ProPublica.
His team has spent the last 18 months lobbying EU officials to impose outside oversight on social media companies’ opaque operations. So when the Facebook whistleblower came forward with reams of internal documents in the late summer, her message chimed with Reset’s own aims — including internal planning expecting scores of former Big Tech employees to go public with concerns on how these firms were potentially harming people’s online experiences.
“My initial reaction to these documents was that they needed to be seen, understood and acted upon,” Scott told POLITICO during a recent trip to Brussels, where his team had helped to arrange a meeting between international lawmakers — including those from Europe and the U.S. — to discuss online misinformation. Unsurprisingly, Haugen met with the lawmakers.
“As an American whistleblower from an American company, it was natural for her to first talk to American officials,” said Scott, who is based in Europe along with the majority of his 7-person team. “But she knows that Europe is where the rules are coming from. She knows that here is where the action is.”
In response to Haugen’s revelations, Facebook, which recently rebranded itself as Meta, rejected her claims it had put profits before users’ safety, highlighted how it had spent billions of euros to protect people from the worst online harms and said the former employee was not involved in many of the internal projects she is currently discussing publicly.
“Contrary to claims about our company, we’ve always had the commercial incentive to remove harmful content from our platform,” said Robin Koch, a Meta spokesperson, in a statement after Haugen testified to the European Parliament on November 8. “We agree with the need for industry rules and that European policymakers are leading the way.”
Meeting of minds
Haugen first met with Reset soon after she decided to go public in early October.
The relationship has focused solely on her activities outside of the U.S. and Scott said his organization is not involved in funding her legal defense, which has so far raised $65,000 out of a hoped-for $100,000 via a crowdfunding site. Where his team stepped in, he added, was to offer suggestions about who she should meet and pay for logistical support, such as flights and hotel rooms.
“She wants to tell her story to European lawmakers, and we know who she should talk to,” he said.
For Haugen, a computer scientist with an MBA from Harvard University, the mission was clear: Change how social media works, including spotlighting minor tweaks inside companies that can be felt by billions of people worldwide.
She has repeated the same message in multiple meetings with lawmakers. Companies like Facebook need to carry out risk assessments, Haugen has argued, to pinpoint where their systems may cause harm, reduce how harmful content can spread quickly online and provide greater access for outsiders to boost transparency around how internal decisions are made.
“All these companies need more transparency, and they need to be able to have public risk assessments,” she told POLITICO during her whistle-stop tour of Europe.
Haugen also had a clear goal for coming forward: Updating or creating laws to stop what she believed were problems within Facebook. She has prioritized meetings with lawmakers in countries already mulling online content rules that could make a difference, though is open to meeting with politicians from the Global South where online hate can have real-world impact.
“Part of the reason we prioritized the countries that we have is they have pending legislation,” she added, “so we felt that this was a critical time to support them. Any solution that scales across the European Union will also likely bootstrap some of those interventions in other parts of the world.”
That’s where Reset stepped in.
Before her arrival, the group drew up a list of countries and lawmakers where Haugen could focus her time — including in the U.K. and EU, where online content rules are in the final stages of approval. Scott, Reset’s founder, said she often had rejected his group’s suggestions and already had her own views on what she wanted to do. Some officials, including the likes of European Internal Markets Commissioner Thierry Breton, also reached out independently to arrange meetings with Haugen.
“Once it became public she was going to Europe, everyone wanted to meet with her,” added Scott. “We don’t always agree on everything, like who to meet with or what policy would be best. But we do agree there’s a wider systemic problem.”
Too professional, too political?
As she prepares to leave Europe, Haugen’s lobbying trip has gone down well with local lawmakers, many of whom have hung onto her every word about what Facebook looks like from the inside. The former Facebook employee reconfirmed many politicians’ view that social media remains a Wild West with little, if any, oversight.
Still, some have dismissed the whistleblower’s suggestions on how to fix social media as not far-reaching enough. Others, particularly in France, believed Haugen was “very American” in how she approached tech regulation in terms of relying on greater transparency and civil society — rather than government — to hold companies to account.
Three European Commission officials who met with the Facebook whistleblower were less than impressed by her take on the bloc’s Digital Services Act, or online content proposals, as what she suggested, including efforts to boost transparency, were ideas that had been debated in Europe for years. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
Others both in Brussels and France were also skeptical about how professional her European tour had become. Two policymakers told POLITICO Haugen’s meetings were more public relations than meaty discussions on digital policymaking, though acknowledged her visit had reinvigorated legislative efforts to be more aggressive in policing social media.
The slick lobbying is in part down to Reset, which, since its creation in early 2020, hasn’t been ashamed to flash its cash in Brussels.
AWO, a firm in Brussels whose major client is the anti-tech lobbying shop, spent up to €199,000 in 2020, the latest figures available, to lobby politicians over the bloc’s online content and antitrust problems, according to a voluntary database of lobbying interests. The figures do not include any work associated with Haugen, and are dwarfed by Facebook’s €5.7 million lobbying spend over the same period.
Scott’s biggest fear surrounding Haugen’s European tour, however, has nothing to do with Europe.
Despite ongoing differences between EU lawmakers about how to pass social media rules, politicians aren’t divided along partisan lines over claims companies like Facebook either censor right wing voices or do too little to keep such divisive political speech off these networks. This contrasts to the U.S., where Republicans and Democrats remain bitterly divided over such issues, and he is worried that Reset’s involvement — and Scott’s ties to the Democratic party — could undermine Haugen’s efforts to clean up social media.
“I would truly regret if my own professional history undermined what Frances Haugen is trying to do,” he said. “Her motivation is not partisan. My motivation is not partisan.”
Sam Stolton contributed reporting from Brussels.
This article has been updated to add in the dropped name of eBay’s founder.
Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email [email protected] to request a complimentary trial.