Haugen Hearing: Sen. Blumenthal Calls It Facebook’s Big Tobacco Moment

Frances Haugen of Facebook testifies before Senate subcommittee
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appears before a Senate subcommittee. (Image credit: C-SPAN via YouTube)

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen got an angry and attentive bipartisan audience at a Tuesday (Oct. 5) hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Data Security, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who called it a Big Tobacco moment for Big Tech.

A former Facebook product manager and data scientist, Haugen took documents when she left the company that she said show its algorithms “amplify polarizing and hateful content” for the sake of profit — a motive partly responsible for “tearing societies apart” — and that the company had research showing that but obscured the fact that it is harmful.

Haugen said Facebook was buying its profits with consumer safety and that it intentionally hides documents and repeatedly misleads the public. Until incentives change, she argued, the company won't.

Also Read: Sen. Blumenthal Says Facebook Weaponizes Childhood Suffering

She pointed out that the government took action to curb serious auto accidents (seat belt mandates), against tobacco and against opioid abuse, suggesting taking action now against Facebook was in the same category.

Blumenthal, the subcommittee’s chairman, called the company “morally bankrupt” and called on Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come before the committee rather than taking a “nothing to see here” approach by “going sailing,” as he suggested Zuckerman had done.

He said if that misleading charge is true, the Federal Trade Commission needs to step in using its authority to pursue false and misleading information.

Also Read: Hill to Hear from Facebook Whistle Blower

Citing last week’s Facebook hearing witness, Antigone Davis, global head of safety for Facebook, who said the research was not a bombshell, Blumenthal said it was the very definition of a bombshell and that Big Tech was having its Big Tobacco moment, the moment when research shows they knew its product was harmful, but concealed that knowledge for the sake of profit. As Connecticut’s attorney general, Blumenthal had led that state’s action against Big Tobacco and remembered the moment when he had the files that showed tobacco knew its product caused cancer.

Ranking member Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Facebook abused consumers’ privacy, did not respect its users, invaded the privacy of children, and was in violation of federal law — the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member of the parent Senate Commerce Committee, said Congress must act against powerful tech companies to protect children and the public at large. He called their product addictive, and agreed that legislators on both sides of the aisle are concerned. Wicker said he had talked to an opinion maker just before the hearing who said “the tech gods had been demystified.” Wicker agreed, and said that the hearing was furthering that process.

Both Blumenthal and Blackburn suggested they would be looking to narrow Big Tech's immunity from civil liability for third-party content on their platforms under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Haugen said the way to modify Sec. 230 is to exempt platform decisions about their algorithms. Those platforms may arguably not have the control over third-party content, but she said they have 100% control over their algorithms. 

But while there have been ongoing bipartisan differences between what is considered particularly sensitive data and how that should be protected, Facebook’s research revelations could potentially be the tipping point that brings Democrats and Republicans together over a common “enemy.” That certainly seemed to the the case Tuesday,

Blackburn predicted that this Congress would be the one where online privacy legislation finally passed, something both sides have been talking about for almost a decade.

Also Read: Facebook Whistleblower's Identity Revealed on ‘60 Minutes’

The time has come for action on privacy legislation, agreed Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), "and I think you are the catalyst," she told Haugen.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said he agreed it was time to bridge the partisan differences and pass bipartisan privacy legislation. Blumenthal said he thought the differences were minor, particularly in the face of what they had learned about Facebook. Joined by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) they agreed it was time to get to work and get it done.

Haugen revealed her identity on CBS’s newsmagazine 60 Minutes, which drew a strong rebuttal from Facebook. Haugen told the committee she had revealed herself at great personal risk because she believed there was still time to address the Facebook issues. Blumenthal assured her that the committee would do what it could to protect her from any retaliation.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), historically one of the strongest advocates for children's online protections and a primary author of COPPA, called Haugen a 21st Century American Hero.

Markey warned that Facebook lobbyists would he making visits after the hearing telling Congress it can't act.

Facebook took aim at Haugen's authority on the subjects on which she testified, and again said they supported some regulation of Big Tech.

“Today, a Senate Commerce subcommittee held a hearing with a former product manager at Facebook who worked for the company for less than two years, had no direct reports, never attended a decision-point meeting with C-level executives – and testified more than six times to not working on the subject matter in question," said Ena Pietsch, director of policy communications. "We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about. Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have been updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.