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Facebook whistleblower's testimony spurs calls for regulation

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A Facebook whistleblower told Congress it's time to regulate the social media company.

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FRANCES HAUGEN: When we realized Big Tobacco was hiding the harms it caused, the government took action. When we figured out cars were safer with seatbelts, the government took action. And when our government learned that opioids were taking lives, the government took action. I implore you to do the same here.

SIMON: Frances Haugen left Facebook earlier this year with a trove of internal documents she says show the company knows that its products cause harm, but she says Facebook has hidden those concerns from the public. What action could the government take? NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us. Let us first note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. Shannon, thanks for being with us.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Lawmakers who heard the testimony seemed riveted on both parties, didn't they?

BOND: Yeah, this hearing was really a galvanizing moment. Just listen to what Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told Haugen.

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AMY KLOBUCHAR: I think the time has come for action, and I think you are the catalyst for that action.

BOND: And she and other lawmakers say, you know, they've been worried about Facebook and the way its algorithms exacerbate things like mental health problems, vaccine misinformation, ethnic violence for a long time. Now, here comes this ex-Facebook employee with tens of thousands of pages of internal research showing Facebook is also concerned about these problems. But, Haugen says, the company hasn't done what it could to fix them because at the end of the day, it's just so focused on growth. So, she says, Facebook is not going to change on its own, so Congress has to be the one to force it.

SIMON: And how, she thinks?

BOND: Well, the hearing, she floated a couple ideas, including a new agency to regulate tech. But the idea she kept returning to is that Facebook is a black box, right? Outsiders don't know what goes into its decisions, how its systems decide what posts to show people. And that makes it really hard to understand how to fix these problems.

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HAUGEN: This inability to see into Facebook's actual systems and confirm how they work, as communicated, is like the Department of Transportation regulating cars by only watching them drive down the highway.

BOND: So Haugen says we need to be able to look under the hood at Facebook.

SIMON: How would you look under the hood?

BOND: One idea is to force Facebook and other companies to give outside researchers much more access to its underlying data, right? This is what feeds its algorithms and ultimately its business model. I spoke to Nate Persily. He's a law professor at Stanford who's drafted a law that would do this.

NATE PERSILY: The whole point here is that if someone is watching Facebook and has access to their data, that Facebook will change its behavior knowing that it's being watched.

BOND: And he says similar models already exist to let researchers examine the raw data from the census, from the IRS, also biomedical research. And what he says is not only would this kind of oversight pressure Facebook to change, but getting a look inside the platform is actually going to be essential to any other regulation Congress might want to pass, whether it's data privacy, rules about algorithms, or breaking up Facebook.

SIMON: Hasn't Congress threatened to regulate high tech before?

BOND: That's right. I mean, pressure has been building since well before Haugen made these disclosures. One big focus is creating new privacy laws that would limit the amount of data Facebook can collect. And that really gets at the heart of Facebook's business, right? All of the information they have about users, that is what feeds their algorithms. And ultimately, it's how Facebook makes money. It uses this data to target advertising. So for years, there have been proposals for a national privacy law. So far, they have stalled. The question is, is this moment now, with the whistleblower, what breaks that logjam?

SIMON: What does Facebook say?

BOND: Well, it's been saying for a long time that it welcomes regulations. It's even put out its own proposals. But the company itself says, look; Congress, it's up to you to pass laws.

SIMON: NPR's Shannon Bond, thanks so much.

BOND: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.