Column: Congress must now take bipartisan action on Facebook

Critics of Facebook have long argued that the social media giant is bad for consumers, bad for children and bad for the country – a serial abuse of its users’ privacy, an amplifier of misinformation and alienating Americans as one. A very handy tool to turn against another.

It turns out they were right, and Facebook knew it.

Last week, company records caught up with the person of whistleblower Francis Haugen, who testified before a Senate committee after giving damaging company documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Wall Street Journal.

Haugen told senators that when chief executive Mark Zuckerberg had a choice between making Facebook, Instagram and other platforms that his company owns secure or growing revenue, he almost always chose money.

“The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safe, but will not make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical advantage in front of the public,” she said.

The documents backed him up. In 2020, Zuckerberg was told that Facebook’s algorithm, the secret formula that promotes content to users, was inadvertently promoting “misinformation, poisoning and violent content.” A memo from the company said that fixing the problem may have prompted users to spend less time on the platform, so they decided not to take action.

He from a CEO who often cites his company’s sacred mission statement: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world together.”

If this is Zuckerberg’s goal, he seems to be failing. On the plus side, he’s estimated to be around $120 billion.

Haugen has focused on the many ways that Facebook and Instagram have targeted children under the age of 13 as a “valuable but untapped audience.”

One of the documents she released shows that the company knows that using Instagram often results in emotional harm: “We make body image issues worse for one in three teenage girls,” Said it.

Rarely has whistling yielded such quick results.

Facebook announced late last month that it was delaying the rollout of Instagram Kids, a new service designed for tweens.

But the company still earned a striking bipartisan influx of criticism from senators ranging from Richard Blumenthal, a liberal Democrat from Connecticut, to Marsha Blackburn, a pro-Trump Republican from Tennessee.

Blumenthal, who has long called for stricter regulation of social media, said Haugen’s revelations “could be a turning point.”

“appears to be a critical mass” [in Congress] Now, interested in doing something worthwhile,” she told me.

Referring to the sheer scale of documents released by Haugen, he said, “The disclosure of how Facebook is profiting from the harm and has tried to hide that loss is so powerful… and the evidence is so visible.” Is.”

The second reason is the focus on harming children. “That’s exactly what brings this powerful bipartisan coalition together: Protect the Children,” he said.

Parents struggle every day to keep their children’s internet usage under control. This is a kitchen-table issue that could garner millions of votes across the country and across the political spectrum.

Blumenthal and other Democrats have a long list of measures they want to pass, including changes to legislation that eliminate Internet platforms from responsibility for the content they distribute (known as Section 230). and perhaps creating a new federal regulatory agency to oversee the Internet. .

Republicans, not surprisingly, are less enthusiastic about major regulatory changes.

OK, big steps are hard. Try taking something small.

Here are three – each of which could attract bipartisan support:

  • Fund a new digital privacy bureau at the Federal Trade Commission, which already has the authority to oversee how Internet platforms use their customers’ data but has only a small staff to deal with the problem.
  • Update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 to give parents some control over how websites track their children’s activities, and “Eraser” to allow parents to delete the content of their children’s posts provide button”;
  • Force Facebook and other platforms to be more transparent about the algorithms they use and to give users more control over the way content is delivered to them;

Another that should pass, but won’t: the Honest Advertising Act, a bill that would require online political ads to reveal who paid for them, in the same way that television and radio ads do. (Republicans don’t like the idea, apparently because they want to retain the ability to deploy “black money” from unknown sources.)

There’s a good reason the public holds Congress in less esteem than the media: They never do much, even on those rare issues where there is widespread consensus.

This is one of those issues. It is an opportunity for MPs to improve their position in the eyes of voters and make the internet safer for their children, their grandchildren and everyone else. Don’t let it slip.

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