Facebook's most difficult week: short circuit with the White House

From Washington, DC

“What a week”, published Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook a few days ago. It was just Tuesday, but the company he founded in 2004 had been in the news uninterrupted since Sunday: a former employee had testified before a congressional subcommittee and called for greater regulation, the three platforms -Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp- had been down during hours and stocks had plummeted. For the Government of Joe Biden, this is further proof that “self-regulation is not working”.

Haugen’s testimony

Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, worked at Zuckerberg’s company until last May. When he left, he took internal documentation that he gave to the diario the Wall Street Journal and that led to a devastating investigation: Facebook knows that Instagram is harmful to teenagers and that hateful content is the one that generates the most engagement on the platforms.

Last Tuesday, Haugen spoke to a US Senate subcommittee as a whistleblower and insisted that Facebook’s internal investigations suggest that Instagram can affect mental health in adolescence, especially in women. He told members of the Trade subcommittee that it is necessary to regulate Facebook not only from an ethical point of view, but also used the keywords that the Senate wants to hear: “The continuing lack of personnel in the counterespionage, intelligence, operations and counterterrorism teams is a national security issue.”

Changes

For the changes, Haugen pointed to the need to modify a point known as “Section 230” in the United States. It is part of the Law of Decency in Communication and allows platforms to be exempted from any responsibility for the content published by their users. The networks, according to Section 230, are not the ones that edit and publish the content. Before the commission, the complainant suggested exempting the algorithms. “They have 100 percent control over their algorithms” to make “decisions that prioritize viralization and growth over public safety”, said. Currently, there is a bill in the US Congress that aims precisely to modify that.

It is not the first scandal facing Facebook and everything indicates that it will not fade easily. The statement of the complainant also attracted the interest of the special commission created in the House of Representatives to investigate what happened on January 6, when the followers of Donald Trump they stormed Congress. “There are many elements that have not yet been reported, so there will be more,” Haugen’s lawyer said last Wednesday to the Washington Post.

The look from the White House

“This is the latest in a series of revelations on social media platforms that make it clear that self-regulation is not working,” the White House press secretary said during the week. Jen Psaki. He also considered that this “validates the significant concern” that the US president and members of Congress of both parties already have “about how the giants of social networks operate and the power they have amassed.” The Biden administration said it will continue to “support fundamental reforms,” but that is something that will be up to Congress to decide.

In public, Facebook also admits that some changes need to be made. One of the advertisements that are repeated in the batches of American television is a commercial signed by Zuckerberg’s company that states that “The internet has changed a lot in the last 25 years”, since the last time important legislation for the sector was passed.

The events of the past week gave him an excuse to insist on that request. “I don’t think that private companies are the ones that have to make all the decisions on their own. That’s why we’ve been asking for years to update internet regulations, ”Zuckerberg said in his post Tuesday, following Haugen’s testimony. “We are committed to doing the best job we can, but on some level the appropriate body to assess the balances between social equities is our democratically elected Congress. For example, what is the correct age to use internet services in adolescence? How should internet services verify people’s age? ”He added.

Facebook asks for “clear guidelines”

For Facebook, it is necessary to set “clear guidelines” for today’s “toughest challenges”. Thus, it claims to support a regulation that establishes a series of standards in terms of transparency in the matter of political announcements and rules that allow combating foreign interference at election time. He also says he is in favor of updating regulations regarding data protection, portability and the Section 230, “To ensure that technology companies respond to the fight against child exploitation, opioid abuse and other types of illegal activity”.

It says very little about one of the main criticisms made of the company and that was in evidence with the fall of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp last Monday: complaints about monopolistic practices.

On the same day that Facebook platforms had been left out of operation worldwide, the company appeared before the US Justice to ask it to reject a complaint from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC, in English), the government agency in charge of promoting free competition in the North American country.

Monopoly?

In late 2020, the FTC denounced Facebook saying the company “illegally maintains its monopoly on social media” through “anti-competitive conduct.” In that presentation, the US agency maintained that Facebook follows a “Systematic strategy”, which included the purchase of Instagram in 2012 and the acquisition of WhatsApp two years later.

Last June, a judge said the FTC had failed to portray Facebook as a monopoly, but gave it a chance to amend the complaint in August. In your reply from the last week, Facebook considered that the agency has no evidence that the company is violating the laws nor hurting his rivals with his dominant position. Justice still has until mid-November to decide whether to accept the complaint.

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