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Facebook's whistleblower and the social media giant's 'Big Tobacco' moment

(Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)
(Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images)

Facebook brags that it’s made the world more open billions of people. But whistleblower Frances Haugen says the company itself has not been open.

What has it been hiding? Its own internal research, which says its algorithms are making the world less safe.

On Tuesday, she shared that research with a Senate committee. Committee chair Richard Blumenthal said she’s changed the course of history.

Today, On Point: From words to action, what would it take for this to become Facebook’s ‘Big Tobacco’ moment?


Sharon Eubanks, lead counsel at the National Whistleblower Center. Author of “Bad Acts.” (@SharonYEubanks)

Kate Klonick, assistant professor at St. John’s Law School. (@Klonick)

Phil Weiser, attorney General of Colorado. He is leading a coalition of 46 state attorneys general in an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook. (@pweiser)

Interview Highlights

Senator Richard Blumenthal called this Facebook’s Big Tobacco moment. Is it? 

Sharon Eubanks: “You could say yes to that. I mean, for 50 years, the tobacco industry reigned supreme and avoided liability and regulation. And once the documents came out and they could no longer deny what they were doing — and the documents presented such an ugly picture of some of the things that the industry knew and hid from the public — that they had to come clean. And finally, in 2009, regulation happened and the companies were regulated. It’s not perfect regulation, but it’s like any other. It’s moving in that direction.”

Next steps for regulating Facebook 

Sharon Eubanks: “We have to decide. We have to make sure that we bring the big guns. No more, Mr. Nice Guy. That means potential litigation is a part of any solution. Even more evidence will come to light through discovery and litigation, but the government should conduct a thorough examination of all of its statutes and make a determination of whether what we know about the conduct of Facebook is actionable under any of those statutes. And if it is, they should bring cases appropriately.

“The other thing that needs to happen at the same time is regulation. We can’t keep saying it’s just too hard to do. We need to regulate this industry. And if that involves working with Mark Zuckerberg or his people, that’s fine. Just have your eyes open about what you’re looking at and insist on getting documents that you otherwise couldn’t get. Just in the normal process without a lot of work.

“So I think a regulatory agency should have particular power to be able to request data from Facebook and the other companies, including data on how its algorithms work and the type of content that the algorithms amplify on Facebook’s social media platforms. So I think a combination of litigation and legislation — making sure that external researchers get the data that they need to help inform the regulation.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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