In a hearing Tuesday, former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that showed the sometimes disastrous effects Instagram had on young girls’ mental health. She also testified that Facebook time and time again chose to maximize its growth rather than implement safeguards on its platforms.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar was one of the lawmakers questioning Haugen. She said that Facebook’s takeover of Instagram may have led the platform to create algorithms that hurt kids.
“We can’t evaluate the original Instagram because Facebook took it over and put their own profit model in there,” Klobuchar said. “So Facebook, according to the whistleblower, knew that this was going on, based on their own research.”
With a combination of antitrust and privacy law reform, Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, hopes that she’ll soon see a turning point in Congress’ approach to the monopolization of Big Tech.
Klobuchar has long fought for more regulations against Big Tech companies like Facebook and Google, but she said it’s been difficult to get other lawmakers on her side. But she hopes that will change after Tuesday’s hearing.
What Washington can do
After the Tuesday hearing with Haugen, Klobuchar pointed to several actions she wants Congress to take to prevent tech giants like Facebook from having free reign to create what she calls dangerous algorithms and policies.
First, Klobuchar says Congress needs to update privacy legislation. “We’ve never updated our privacy laws since the advent of tech, which is hilarious,” she said. “People should be able to opt in if they want their data shared.” Apple created a new iOS software update in June which explicitly asks if users are willing to be tracked across their internet activity. About 75 percent said no, which Klobuchar said is a clear sign that tech consumers want more privacy.
Second, Klobuchar wants to expand the Children’s Online Privacy Act — which regulates websites to have certain protections for kids under 13, like not collecting their personal information — to apply to children older than 13.
Third, Klobuchar thinks Congress should require companies to make their algorithms more transparent, “potentially creating liability for tech companies that amplify bad content.”
Finally, Klobuchar wants to strengthen antitrust laws to prevent companies like Facebook from getting so large and powerful.
“We’ve got this consolidation of these platforms, and that means that they have this monopoly of omnipresent power… There’s arrogance about doing the research, finding out that their algorithms glorify eating disorders in young kids.”
Although privacy laws are a big part of Klobuchar’s plan for Big Tech, she also sees a revamp of antitrust laws as critical to reining the companies in.
Earlier this year, Klobuchar introduced legislation called the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act that would update the U.S. antitrust enforcement apparatus. This bill would increase antitrust law enforcement resources by increasing funding to the FTC and the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. It would also strengthen prohibitions against anticompetitive mergers by updating the legal standard for permissible mergers, forbidding mergers that create a significant risk of lessening or destroying competition. On top of that, the bill would shift the burden to the merging companies to prove their merger will not violate the law, a responsibility that is currently a legal burden on the government.
After being introduced in February of this year, that bill hasn’t seen much, if any, progress. The bill does not have any recorded actions such as committee markups or votes since being introduced.
In April, Klobuchar held a hearing where companies including Tile, Spotify and Match Group testified about how Apple and Google have appeared to use their gatekeeper control to stifle competition in the app store market.
A federal judge ruled in September that Apple has to let app developers tell users about alternative payment methods and link out to their own transaction systems instead of showing the Apple app store as the only purchasing option. However, the ruling fell short of calling Apple a monopolist.
Legal actions and congressional hearings have ramped up against tech giants, with the Justice Department suing Google last October over allegations it violated federal antitrust law, and the FTC suing Facebook for allegedly behaving as an unlawful monopoly two months later.
This year, tech giants are not happy with Congress’ requests that they testify before Klobuchar’s subcommittee. Apple refused to send a witness to the April hearing but reversed course after receiving a scorching letter from Klobuchar and Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee.
The congressional hearings, though, are far from over. And Klobuchar says they might be the one tactic that gets Congress to listen to her.
Congressional hearing may be a catalyst for Klobuchar’s reform efforts
In her testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Haugen did something that many other witnesses have not been able to do: She could back up with documents and personal experience what Facebook did and did not do when presented with its own research findings. The findings showed how harmful the company’s algorithms were towards children, and how much its platforms amplified misinformation.
The documents Haugen released unearthed several incendiary revelations about Facebook’s actions in its pursuit of growth. The company planned to market its products directly to children, and documents showed the severity of the platform’s public health misinformation problem. Internal research that employees within the company performed showed that its Instagram platform is destructive to young girls’ mental health. Haugen was able to show that Facebook chose to continue on with its actions despite evidence that the platform was harming children.
“I think that was one of the most dramatic moments when the whistleblower explained that they knew this, they knew that this content was hurting kids and getting to kids,” Klobuchar said.
Haugen’s testimony also showed that Republican and Democratic lawmakers are on the same side. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle at the hearing spoke about bills they have proposed that would add safety provisions for young users.
The hearing also revealed that Facebook is likely sitting on an even larger pile of internal research. Haugen shared thousands of documents, but she encouraged lawmakers to demand more documents and internal research from Facebook.
Now, Klobuchar said, she knows that lawmakers across the political spectrum are listening, and she’s hopeful that Haugen’s testimony will spark the enthusiasm she’s looking for from Congress.
“You know, I think it’s going to be a major game changer,” Klobuchar said of the hearing. “One person can sometimes be a catalyst to change, and that was her. I think so many times it’s easy to brush over this stuff and think ‘oh, it’s just too hard, I’ll listen to the lobbyists,’ and that’s why nothing has been done. But you know, at this point my colleagues are going to have to decide, ‘well, I guess it’s okay that all these little kids are getting addicted to these platforms, and I guess it’s okay that they’re getting targeted with weird ads and bad stuff.’ And I don’t think anyone can say that.”