This article was originally featured in our All Rise newsletter on October 18, 2021. Follow the link to subscribe.
In an October 5 panel with the U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection, Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, provided compelling insight into how her former employer puts “profits before people.” In doing so, Haugen said in written testimony, “the result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism and polarization—and undermining societies around the world.” One key example and focus was the trillion-dollar tech giant’s influence on young users, and particularly on girls.
Facebook’s director of policy communications Lena Pietsch refuted Haugen’s testimony but responded with a statement that also sought common ground about strengthening internet rules: “It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”
Though Congress has not yet made any rulings, a group of almost 50 nonprofits is trying to curb the tech giant’s “harmful business model” in reaction to Haugen’s testimony by launching HowtoStopFacebook.org. The site will petition lawmakers to pass stronger data laws that will curb the platform’s influence.
In addition to Haugen’s disclosures to the U.S. Senate, she also filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission. That complaint detailed how Facebook misled investors and advertisers by omitting or misrepresenting knowledge about how its platforms were being used, such as to spread misinformation, and the measures it was taking to combat it.
Haugen is represented by Whistleblower Aid Founder John Tye.
The magnitude of Haugen’s testimony was overshadowed in mainstream and social media by a server outage that disrupted Facebook and related platforms WhatsApp and Instagram one day earlier. Still, media pundits initially focused Haugen’s background and motive, something that Sanford Heisler Sharp Partner John McKnight said happens too often in lieu of the quality of the information and her actual words to Congress.
“I think this is a big deal. If you’re going to go up against Facebook, she is exactly the kind of person you want on your side,” said McKnight, the co-chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Whistleblower & Qui Tam practice group. McKnight does not represent Haugen and is not connected to Whistleblower Aid, but noted that Haugen’s background as a data scientist with a degree in computer engineering and a Master's Degree from Harvard Business School makes her an ideal whistleblower or witness.
“These days, in the tech world, we don’t see as many whistleblowers in the tech space as we do in other industries,” McKnight added. “This gave the public a picture of what goes on in secret, and it sends a message to the Big Tech companies that may also have a public-facing presence. Seeing people like her come forward may inspire others to do the same, if they feel a similar moral obligation.”
McKnight’s perspective proved prophetic. His Best Lawyers® interview was conducted on the morning of October 12, and by that afternoon another former data scientist for Facebook, Sophie Zhang came forward. Zhang told CNN she “felt like she had blood on her hands” about her role influencing governments without any oversight, and passed on documentation about potential criminal violations to a U.S. law enforcement agency.
There is concern about retaliation for such a high-profile matter. But McKnight said there are legal protections in place for these scenarios, despite the fact that Haugen leaked thousands of pages of information to the press.
“You are looking at the act of taking the documents,” he said. “There are statutes that prohibit retaliatory actions and protect whistleblowers, especially if they are passing facts along. Federal courts want to make sure that the information you passed on were accessible through the normal course of your work. If you hacked into someone else’s hard drive, then it becomes a legal conflict.”
Legislators across the pond from Washington, D.C. clearly paid close attention to Haugen’s testimony and Zhang’s emergence. Last week, the UK Parliament announced separate plans for Zhang and Haugen to provide testimony and evidence to its Joint Committee in October. The goal of the hearing is to help the Committee shape its Online Safety Bill, a seminal piece of legislation aimed at regulating social media due to be put before Parliament for approval in 2022.
Justin Smulison is a professional writer who regularly contributes to Best Lawyers. He was previously a reporter for the New York Law Journal and also led content and production for the Custom Projects Group at ALM Media. In addition to his various credited and uncredited writing projects, he has developed global audiences hosting and producing podcasts and audio interviews for professional organizations and music sites.