Damning testimony from a former Facebook employee has reignited bipartisan support for reining in the tech sector, with members of the US Congress vowing to tighten rules for big companies.
Senior members of the Senate commerce committee said they were looking at a range of legislation to crack down on Facebook and other big Silicon Valley groups after Frances Haugen told Senators on Tuesday how the social media company repeatedly prioritised profits over user safety.
Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic chair of the Senate consumer protection subcommittee, told reporters after the hearing: “There was such bipartisan support today . . . I think it augurs well for actually getting [new legislation] across the finish line.
“[Haugen] provided a lot of hope and encouragement to parents around the country that something can be done to help protect children.”
Owen Tedford, a research analyst at the Washington-based Beacon Policy Advisors, said: “This definitely increases Congress’ desire to get something done on child protection in particular.”
In a three-hour hearing, Haugen accused her former employers of pushing to maximise social interaction on its platforms at all costs, even when those interactions exacerbated addiction, bullying and eating disorders.
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Haugen said that Facebook had decided on multiple occasions not to implement changes that would reduce the visibility of inflammatory content.
She also detailed how the company covered up research it had conducted on how its services affect children in particular, exposing them to round-the-clock bullying and content that negatively affected users’ mental health.
“The company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They cannot solve this crisis without your help,” Haugen told members of the committee.
Congress is considering a range of laws to tighten the law for large technology companies. They include federal privacy protections, limitations to the legal immunity enjoyed by social media companies and several bills which would strengthen the hand of US competition policy enforcers to take action against these companies.
One of the reforms most likely to pass, experts say, is an expansion to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to make it illegal for companies to collect personal information on under-13s without their parents’ consent.
Another is a move to limit Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which means social media companies cannot be sued for content which users post on their platforms, even if they moderate it.
So far most of these reforms have struggled to gain enough political momentum to be brought to a vote, but campaigners and some experts believe Haugen’s testimony might change that.
Eleanor Gaetan, the director of public policy at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, said: “The anecdotes Haugen conveyed were crushing. This is likely to solidify the instinct that already existed in Congress across the board that we need greater online protections for children.”
Some argue however that it will remain difficult for Democrats and Republicans to agree on the finer details of any legislative changes. For example, members of the committee have not yet agreed on whether a new federal privacy law should supersede those imposed in recent years by individual states.
Neil Chilson, a senior research fellow for technology and innovation at the Charles Koch Institute, which opposes most new technology regulation, said: “It is hard to see practical legislation coming out of this — Congress does not have the capacity to do this right now.”