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Whistleblower urges regulation to tackle Facebook 'crisis'

By AFP - Oct 05,2021 - Last updated at Oct 05,2021

In this photo taken on October 5, 2020, logos of US social networks Facebook, Instagram and mobile messaging service WhatsApp are seen on the screens of a smartphone and a tablet in Toulouse, southwestern France (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — A Facebook whistleblower went before US lawmakers Tuesday to push them to regulate the social media giant, after an outage hit potentially billions of users and highlighted global dependence on its services.

Ex-employee Frances Haugen testified on Capitol Hill after she leaked reams of internal research to authorities and The Wall Street Journal, which detailed how Facebook knew its sites were potentially harmful to young people's mental health.

She spoke to senators less than a day after Facebook, its photo-sharing app Instagram and messaging service WhatsApp went offline for roughly seven hours, with "billions of users" impacted, according to tracker Downdetector.

Haugen warned in a pre-prepared statement of the risk of not creating new safeguards for a platform that reveals little about how it operates.

“I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy,” her statement said.

“Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help.”

In her testimony she notes the danger of the power in the hands of a service that is woven into the daily lives of so many people.

“The company intentionally hides vital information from the public, from the US government and from governments around the world,” Haugen’s statement said.

“The severity of this crisis demands that we break out of our previous regulatory frames.”

Facebook has pushed back hard against the outrage regarding its practices and their impact, but this is just the latest crisis to hit the Silicon Valley giant.

US lawmakers for years have threatened to regulate Facebook and other social media platforms to address criticisms that the tech giants trample on privacy, provide a megaphone for dangerous misinformation and damage young people’s well-being.

After years of fierce criticism directed at social media, without major legislative overhauls, some experts were skeptical that change was coming.

“It’s going to have to come down to the platforms, feeling pressure from their users, feeling pressure from their employees,” Mark Hass, an Arizona State University professor told AFP.

‘I love Instagram’ 

Haugen, a 37-year-old data scientist from Iowa, has worked for companies including Google and Pinterest — but said in an interview Sunday with CBS news show “60 Minutes” that Facebook was “substantially worse” than anything she had seen before.

Facebook’s Vice President of Policy and Global Affairs Nick Clegg vehemently pushed back at the assertion its platforms are “toxic” for teens, days after a tense, hours-long congressional hearing in which US lawmakers grilled the company over its impact on the mental health of young users.

Facebook late Monday blamed the outage on configuration changes it made to routers that coordinate network traffic between its data centers.

“This disruption to network traffic had a cascading effect on the way our data centers communicate, bringing our services to a halt,” Facebook Vice President of Infrastructure Santosh Janardhan said in a post.

In addition to the disruption to people, businesses and others that rely on the company’s tools, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a financial hit.

Fortune’s billionaire tracking website late Monday said Zuckerberg’s personal fortune plunged by nearly $6 billion from the prior day to land at just under $117 billion.

Some people rejoiced at Facebook’s tools being offline, but some complained to AFP that the outage had caused trouble for them both professionally and personally.

“I love Instagram. It’s the app I use the most, especially for my job,” said Millie Donnelly, community manager for a nonprofit.

“So professionally, it’s definitely a step back and then personally, I just am always on the app.”

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