A big week for Big Tech in big trouble

Oct 26, 2021 | social media, tech ethics

It’s a big week for Big Tech both sides of the Atlantic. While whistleblower Frances Haugen gives evidence in UK Parliament to the Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill, story after story dropped in the US press about the goings-on inside Facebook thanks to detailed examination of the thousands of internal documents she leaked. And Twitter had its own moment in the spotlight too, when it released internal research admitting it had uncovered bias in its algorithm for rightwing politicians and news outlets.

Big Tech is in big trouble

There are almost too many press stories appearing, in what’s now been dubbed the ‘Facebook Papers’ (neé ‘Facebook Files’), to wade through, but a few highlights so far from the documents are: 

  1. Insiders at Facebook say Mark Zuckerberg prioritised growth over safety.
  2. Documents show Facebook’s services are used to spread religious hatred in India.
  3. Employees pleaded with Facebook to stop letting politicians bend the rules.
  4. Teen users are dropping off the platform in droves, which Facebook sees as an existential threat.
  5. Facebook has known it has a problem relating to human traffickers using its platform for years.
  6. The company struggled to moderate content on its platform far away from its English-language focused headquarters.
  7. It bungled efforts to curb an explosion of hate speech prior to the Capitol attack.
  8. It knows that Instagram is bad for teen mental health.

Big Tech versus online safety

In her testimony to the Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill in the UK, Frances Haugen painted an even more damning picture of Facebook’s internal practices, saying that the company “probably knows full well it has users under 13 and directs content at them to keep them on the platform.” She added “Facebook sees safety as a cost, not a growth centre.”

Frances Haugen on Big Tech's BIg Troubles
Frances Haugen in front of the Committee

In one of the most damaging exchanges in her testimony to the Committee she stated that, in her opinion, Facebook is “unquestionably” making hate speech online worse and called for the draft Bill’s remit to be expanded to cover “societal harms”, as well as those to individuals.

Regulation (again)

Predictably, the slew of stories has led to anguished reporting about the lack of regulation of Big Tech. The UK’s proposed Online Safety (neé Harms) Bill, which hasn’t even reached parliamentary debate stage yet, has been described as a “pioneering piece of legislation” in this respect. But there are concerns that every and all problem that can be loosely attached to the digital world is being shoe-horned into it, turning it into a potentially unwieldy ‘kitchen sink bill’ which won’t satisfy anyone very much.

There is also the concern that making its powers too broad may actually help some of the bigger platforms, especially Facebook, and prevent smaller start-ups from challenging its dominance.

“People are concerned that, in effect, there’s a paradox — that it could help the Facebooks of this world because the regulatory hurdles that get going might be too big. And if anyone is capable of being regulated it’s Facebook, as opposed to a startup. So I think that’s something we have to be very careful of..” 

Ed Vaizey — former Conservative Party MP, now Lord Vaizey of Didcot

And the issues revealed in the Facebook Papers have led some to speculate that the global problems caused by its global reach may now actually be impossible to fix at its current size, calling for a break-up.

“Maybe a platform [like Facebook] that is too big to moderate safely is too big to exist in its current size.” 

Cori Crider, Co-founder Foxglove

Whatever the conclusions eventually reached, it seems likely that, given the size of the leak from inside Facebook, this is not the end of stories we’re going to be hearing about its problems for some time to come.