Mark Zuckerberg’s former adviser hails Facebook whistleblower

Roger McNamee called for strong regulations to stop harmful technologies from hitting the market

Facebook faced blistering criticism during a Congressional hearing on Tuesday. Photo: AP
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Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and former adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, has praised whistleblower Frances Haugen for coming forward with explosive claims about the social media giant and has called for strong regulations to stop harmful technologies.

Mr McNamee, who wrote the book Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook Catastrophe in 2019, said the California-based social site often shifts responsibility for its shortcomings to others, including users.

“All incentives direct the company to stay on its current course … because many other companies are imitating Facebook in the hopes of profit, fixing Facebook will not be enough,” Mr McNamee wrote in Time magazine.

“Every time Facebook faces pressure for change, it does something that sounds helpful but is not.”

Facebook and Mr Zuckerberg faced blistering criticism over the company’s practices and policies during testimony from Ms Haugen on Tuesday.

The former Facebook employee told a Senate commerce sub-committee hearing that Facebook algorithms promote posts with high levels of engagement, often pushing harmful or divisive content to users.

This "dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people", she told legislators, noting that Facebook is "accountable to no one".

Before appearing before the Senate, Ms Haugen went on national US television on Sunday evening. This was followed by a nearly six-hour Facebook breakdown – along with its associated services WhatsApp and Instagram – on Monday.

The sudden disruption was caused by a domain name server issue, bringing a big chunk of online activity to a halt.

“Their communications systems have become central to our way of life, as the impact of this week’s … outage underscores, but they have their thumb on the scale, amplifying content that triggers fear and outrage because doing so maximises profits,” said Mr McNamee.

He said Ms Haugen, a data scientist from Iowa, has transformed the conversation about technology reform and accomplished more than what he and others had achieved in years of effort.

Time illustration of its front cover. Photo: Time

Ms Haugen, who began working for the company in 2019 and resigned in April 2021, leaked internal documents to The Wall Street Journal, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Congress and other news outlets.

Mr McNamee said it is evident that policymakers and media have constantly miscalculated the danger posed by Facebook, “buying into the company’s rosy claims” about the power of connecting the world and giving benefit of the doubt where none was deserved.

The tech industry is mainly unregulated, allowing big companies like Facebook to behave as “unelected governments”, he added.

“We need something like an FDA [Food and Drug Administration] for technology products … it would set safety standards, require annual safety audits and certification as a condition for every product and impose huge financial penalties for any harms that result,” Mr McNamee wrote.

He also condemned the practice of “surveillance capitalism”, whereby companies sell every last scrap of personal data they gather.

Surveillance capitalism is profitable for Facebook because users make decisions in predictable ways, “which facilitates manipulation”.

“Everything we do on a smartphone, every financial transaction we make, every trip, every prescription and medical test, every action we take on the Internet or in apps is tracked and most of it is available for purchase in a data marketplace,” he said.

He recommended regulations that would address three problems across tech – safety, privacy and competition.

“At a minimum, Congress must ban third-party use of sensitive data, such as that related to health, location, financial transactions, web browsing and app data," Mr McNamee wrote.

Mr Zuckerberg has disputed the allegations.

“It’s difficult to see coverage that misrepresents our work and our motives. At the most basic level, I think most of us just don’t recognise the false picture of the company that is being painted,” he said in a Facebook post.

Reacting to the allegations raised against the company's culture, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said it is difficult to see the coverage that misrepresents the company's work and motives. AFP
Updated: October 09, 2021, 6:09 AM