The internal Facebook documents made public by Frances Haugen have raised eyebrows around the world. The whistleblower is coming to Berlin to meet with leading German politicians – and many political leaders in Europe are eager to take action against the company. Will anything come of it?
Mark Zuckerberg spent Thursday evening doing what he likes best: talking about “the next version of the internet.” Speaking at the opening of an annual Facebook conference, the company founder gushed about his newest project, the “metaverse.” It is a place, he says, where physical reality will meld with virtual life, where people will work as avatars, go to concerts, play games, speak to each other or even teleport themselves to a place they’ve always wanted to go.
The detour into the future was likely just what Zuckerberg needed. The present for Facebook, after all, isn’t particularly enjoyable. The company – which is now changing its name to Meta – is mired in crisis. A mistake during routine maintenance procedures earlier this month shut down the entire system – including Instagram and WhatsApp, which Facebook owns – and the company’s stock price has been slumping. More to the point, though, are the explosive internal documents that have been circulating for several weeks, unveiled by Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook.
Facebook’s reputation has never exactly been spotless, but the information released by Haugen has cast it in an even dimmer light – as a company that harms children and youth, divides society and undermines democracy. And Zuckerberg? The documents made public by Haugen suggest he is fully aware of this but has done nothing to fix it.
The mood at company headquarters in Menlo Park is correspondingly miserable, and Facebook and Zuckerberg both need to repair their image. But the affair has also made political waves, with governments in many countries now facing pressure to finally explain how they intend to rein the company in, what rules they plan to implement, and why it has taken so long.
“Nothing More Than Lip Service”
After all, plans aimed at controlling Facebook and making its platform, with their billions of users, less dangerous have been around for years. U.S. Congress has several proposals on its docket but has yet to pass a single one. In Brussels, the European Union is in the process of developing two legal packages, but movement has been slow, and they aren’t likely to become law before 2023. Germany, meanwhile, passed the Network Enforcement Act back in 2017 to curtail hate on the internet and other criminal content. But new cases have shown that the law is only of limited use, since Facebook doesn’t even obey its own regulations pertaining to the rapid deletion of dangerous content.
The Facebook Papers have now thrust the issue into Germany’s coalition negotiations, as the country continues to move toward assembling a new government following September’s elections. The three parties involved in current coalition talks – the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens – want to appear proactive on the issue. Together, they now intend to up the pressure on Brussels and want Germany’s European partners to finally take action and pass binding laws.
“The market power of digital platforms has reached worrying dimensions,” says Konstantin von Notz, a domestic policy expert for the Greens. Political leaders, he says, have “allowed them to get by for far too long with non-binding commitments and cursory references to community standards they came up with themselves.” Jens Zimmermann, the digital-policy point man for the SPD group in German parliament, agrees. “Only strict regulation leads to results,” he says. “All the promises and assertions made by Facebook in recent years were nothing more than lip service.”
Some members of the political parties involved in coalition negotiations in Berlin are thus planning to meet with Frances Haugen next week. Prior to leaving Facebook, Haugen spent several weeks collecting internal documents which she ultimately made public. They include reports from Facebook’s own research group and drafts of presentations, some of which were intended for Zuckerberg himself. There are analyses indicating that Instagram, a platform primarily focused on sharing images and videos, makes one in three girls with body image issues feel even worse. The data dump also includes memos that seem to show that the company has ignored many prominent violations of its own guidelines.
The representatives from the SPD, Greens and FDP hope that Haugen can tell them more about some of the details that have been made public and perhaps even share additional problems.
The battle between Haugen and Facebook has been fascinating to watch. On the one side is a giant, publicly traded company that is doing all it can to play down the disclosures. Facebook is insisting that many of the documents are out of date or have been taken out of context. On the other is Haugen, an astute, former employee who is now being treated like a popstar by the media. She made an initial public appearance on the U.S. broadcaster CBS, then gave testimony to a Senate committee and, on Monday of this week, appeared in British parliament. And now Berlin. The plan calls for her to meet with Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht of the SPD along with a secretary of state from the Justice Ministry and additional representatives from the three parties involved in the coalition negotiations.
The parties likely to be part of Germany’s next government were eager to meet with Haugen in part because the attitude in the country toward social media platforms is relatively clear-cut. According to a representative study performed by the public opinion research institute Pollytix – a survey which has not yet been made public but which DER SPIEGEL has seen – internet users in Germany are fed up with social media networks. Fully 81 percent of survey participants would like to see the new government “do more to force social media platforms to take action against fake news and incorrect information.” The message is clear, and ignoring it would be a significant political misstep, particularly for a coalition hoping to make digital issues a centerpiece.
Haugen is visiting Berlin because she believes pressure from Germany would have a significant effect on Facebook. The company’s business model exposes “the most vulnerable groups to the biggest harms,” she told DER SPIEGEL. “I hope that Germany feels the historical responsibility to act to protect democracy and to show the world that Europe’s rules and standards for Big Tech will have real teeth.”
The idea of the German government taking the global lead on digital policy may sound arrogant, but the Social Democrats like to point out that Olaf Scholz, who has spent the last several years as German finance minister and is now likely to become chancellor, played a key role in pushing through the global minimum corporate tax rate. Furthermore, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is from Germany – and there is certainly room for the Commission to be more proactive when it comes to Facebook and other social networks.
Haugen, for her part, has placed great hope in Brussels, where two projects are currently under development: a law pertaining to digital services, and another to digital markets. The Commission is hoping that the legal framework will prevent tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google from abusing their market power in the first place, rather than having to play catch-up afterwards, as has thus far been the case.
Large online platforms could lose important leeway as a result. They are to be prohibited, for example, from featuring their own offerings more advantageously that those from the competition. Furthermore, Facebook and the others will be forced to provide deeper insight into the algorithms they use, remove illegal content more quickly, and provide users with the ability to file complaints. They would also be required to produce regular risk analyses to promote early recognition of where their systems might be open to abuse and they be obliged to finally provide external researchers with access to their data. Increased oversight on the national and EU levels is also part of the package.
It remains unclear whether these ideas will ever become law. EU member states agreed this week to parts of the legal package, but it is questionable whether the European Parliament will grant its approval. The laws, after all, touch on competition, freedom of opinion and issues of discourse and decision-making – all of which are sensitive, especially in Europe. As such, the negotiations have been difficult. National interests have thus far stood in the way of a quick solution, as have open questions about which companies the laws should apply to. Only to Facebook and other internet giants? Or also to booking services, job portals and streaming companies?
It also remains unclear who will be responsible for enforcement. The Commission would like to oversee compliance, and plans call for the hiring of around 80 new staff members for the purpose. Critics, though, say that won’t be nearly enough, which is one reason why national agencies also want to be involved in enforcement. That, though, could result in new conflicts with the European Parliament. Many in Brussels want to keep things completely in the Commission’s hands, if only to ensure a consistent approach.
“We must ensure that the law succeeds,” says Andreas Schwab, a member of European Parliament from Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). As rapporteur of the parliamentary negotiations, he plays a key role in moving the law forward. He is certain that if EU introduces regulations, other parts of the world will follow, including the U.S. He believes Congress in Washington is essentially on the same page as Brussels.
Still, it will be quite some time before any new rules become binding. EU sources say that Facebook and other companies have stepped up their lobbying efforts, with the apparent goal of at least delaying things. The official Commission timeline calls for the laws aimed at regulating large internet platforms to go into effect in early 2023.
The Facebook Papers and the visit from Haugen, the whistleblower, are lending more urgency to the debate. The company must be “strictly” regulated, says Green politician Konstantin von Notz. “Whether it’s hate speech, or hidden influence on the public debate and the process of building democratic consensus, all the way up to elections – there are numerous problems with which we, as a digital society, find ourselves confronted, and they are a direct result of a lack of regulation.”
We need “binding transparency and accountability” as soon as possible, says Mario Brandenburg, an expert on digital issues with the FDP who is his party’s tech delegate in the coalition negotiations. It is important that the European plans “quickly become reality,” he says. Zimmerman, his counterpart from the SPD, agrees, saying: “We have to speed up.” If necessary, he adds, Germany might need to proceed at the national level. “If we move ahead with digital regulation, other countries will be emboldened. It would just accelerate the process.”
The Justice Ministry has already developed specific proposals. Lambrecht, the justice minister, wants to completely ban personalized ads from being served to minors, for example. She is also insisting that large platforms be forced to lift the veil on their algorithms, in part, no doubt, to ensure that they don’t give free rein to hate speech. “No private company can be allowed to decide on its own what is covered by freedom of speech,” Lambrecht says.
Lambrecht, who is said to want to remain in her current role in the new coalition, seems to enjoy standing up to Big Tech. In 2019, shortly after being appointed to her current role, she pushed through amendments that strengthened the Network Enforcement Act despite strong opposition from the companies it applies to. Many of those amendments have already entered into force, and starting in February 2022, operators will be required to forward certain forms of criminal content to Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office, along with all available information pertaining to the creators of that content.
That push brought Lambrecht plenty of media attention, but also problems. Critics pointed out that the judiciary didn’t have sufficient capacity to carry out all the new investigations the new law would require. Furthermore, they said, investigators would continue to be strongly dependent on the cooperation of the platforms themselves.
And relying on Facebook these days is a fool’s errand. The company isn’t even able to apply its own standards. Shortly before the German election, Facebook said it intended to step up its efforts to combat “threatening networks,” and had therefore deleted sites run by “Querdenker” groups, a movement that is essentially a collection of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists that has deep ties to the extreme right. But there are quite a few such groups, organized according to members’ telephone number prefixes. DER SPIEGEL found that while Querdenker groups 241, 615 and 711 had been deleted, those of groups 341, 521 and 721 were still online, even though the content is essentially identical.
Also, the guideline requiring the blocking of people and organizations that glorify or participate in violence is only half-heartedly enforced, if at all. Even allegedly criminal and right-wing terrorist groups openly use the platform. Even though raids were recently conducted in several German states against the right-wing extremist Berserker Clan, a Facebook page of that name was still accessible at the end of this week. A Facebook page called Revolution Chemnitz ANW was likewise long reachable. Indeed, it was still online even after members of the right-wing extremist group Revolution Chemnitz had been arrested. The neo-Nazi terrorist organization Oldschool Society also had a Facebook page. It was only deleted after security officials went after the group. Facebook, it would seem, tends to be far more reactive than it is proactive.
Next week, Frances Haugen, who lives in Puerto Rico, will no doubt learn more about the challenges Germany faces in its interactions with Facebook. And then her journeys will continue: Her calendar is packed. After Berlin, she will be heading to Portugal for the Web Summit, before then heading to Brussels for a Nov. 8 appearance before the European Parliament Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection.
Her travels are being paid for by an NGO that supports whistleblowers, Haugen has said. But she isn’t particularly concerned about money for the moment, she told The New York Times, adding that she had the foresight to become an early cryptocurrency investor.