The Facebook Whistleblower Is Heroic… And Terribly Wrong

Matt Stoller:

It was an immensely slick and effective public relations campaign, and devastating to the firm’s image. Haugen offered a lot of great information, and she was compelling, articulate, composed, and authoritative. She was impressive, even if you are somewhat skeptical of her motives. Along with these documents, she also offered some a good policy ideas, like making platforms responsible for the speech they amplify through algorithms (changing the law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act), as well as creating rules to move social media away from an engagement-based business model. Haugen’s goal was, in part, to simplify Facebook as a platform, to make it human scale. 

But there is a huge problem with Haugen’s overall policy recommendations. And since she got a lot of attention, her ideas are getting attention as well.

Haugen is a trained designer of algorithms, and along with many naive Silicon Valley insiders turned critics, at heart does not see a danger with concentrated power. “I don’t hate Facebook,” she has said. “I love Facebook. I want to save it.” Her approach to social media is similar to what many left consumer oriented groups support, which is not to take apart a concentration of power, but to regulate it. It is, in many ways, a similar framework as Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform package, which, rather than making systemic changes to concentrated and bloated dysfunctional sectors, simply overlaid captured regulators on top of them.

In fact, Haugen’s proposal is also very similar to that of… Mark Zuckerberg. Both want to keep Facebook a dominant monopoly. Why? Both Haugen and Zuckerberg think the firm’s market power allows it to make a lot of money, and that money can be reinvested in safety systems and better site features. Haugen thinks that Facebook is a natural monopoly, as advertisers will only learn and finance one social media platform. Splitting off Facebook Blue from Instagram effectively would mean that all the ad revenue would go to Instagram. Facebook Blue, she suspects, would remain a dangerous social network, but would lack financial resources to mitigate problems. 

If the firm stays together, so goes Haugen’s story, then WhatsApp, Facebook Blue, and Instagram will all have plenty of resources to invest in safety. So what does she suggest with this dominant natural monopoly? Her recommendation is to place a separate data-specific regulatory overlay on top of Facebook and its subsidiaries to protect the public interest. This agency, according to Haugen, would allow people who are in between stints at social media firms to join the government and help make regulations on the sector. And here again she joins team Facebook, as Facebook’s Nick Clegg wrote an oped earlier this year recommending just such a regulator.


Katie Harbath: