November 29, 2021

Before the US Congress, a whistleblower compares Facebook to the “tobacco industry” and calls for its regulation

“When we realized the extent of the damage caused by the tobacco industry, the government stepped in. When we realized cars were safer with seat belts, the government stepped in. “ For her first parliamentary hearing, Tuesday, October 5, Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who transmitted thousands of pages of internal group documents to several regulators and media, set the tone from the first minutes, comparing practices from the latter to those of cigarette or automobile manufacturers.

The formula has not fallen on deaf ears: Richard Blumenthal. The Democratic senator, who chairs the trade commission before which Haugen, is one of Silicon Valley’s most critical people and has in the past led tobacco industry investigations as a prosecutor:

“Last week, before this commission, Facebook’s security officer Antigone Davis told us that these documents did not constitute a ‘bomb’. In reality, they are the very definition of a “bomb”. Facebook and the big digital companies are about to experience the same setbacks as the tobacco industry. “

In this metaphor, spun throughout the entire hearing, the equivalent of nicotine and tars was the« engagement », this measure of the number of actions carried out by a user (sharing, clicking, commenting, etc.), scrutinized by Facebook, Instagram (owned by the Facebook group) and many other companies. According to Mme Haugen, which relies on the documents it took with it, Facebook has systematically refused to put in place policies to limit the negative consequences of its applications since these projects risked undermining the “engagement” of its users, or its statistics of “significant social interactions” (meaningful social interactions), another internal measure of user activity. What Facebook disputes.

The Facebook riposte

This very well-attended hearing extended a particularly negative media sequence for Facebook, which is somewhat reminiscent of the scandal of data hijacked by the Cambridge Analytica agency in 2018. In September, the documents copied by Haugen have already been at the heart of a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal denouncing Facebook’s failings in the fight against hatred and disinformation or even Instagram’s role in the discomfort of adolescents – and more particularly of young women.

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