Facebook restricts staff message boards to stop leaks; memo gets leaked

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Business Insider 14 October, 2021 - 04:47am 3 views

It wants a data privacy law "strong enough to effectively end Facebook's current business model."

The effort was spurred by testimony from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen last week.

Dozens of human rights organizations have started a campaign calling for action against Facebook following a week of turmoil for the tech giant.

The coalition of nearly 50 nonprofits launched a new website, HowtoStopFacebook.org, on Wednesday. The organizations backing the effort include names like the Center for Digital Democracy, the Government Accountability Project, Fight for the Future, and PEN America.

The groups launched the campaign in response to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's testimony before Congress last week.

Haugen, a former Facebook employee, told a Senate hearing that the company has sown "more division, more harm, more lies, more threats, and more combat." In recent weeks, Haugen had leaked tens of thousands of pages of company documents that laid the groundwork for a multi-part Wall Street Journal investigation into Facebook. The documents showed that Facebook knew Instagram negatively affects teens' mental health and that employees were aware that a 2018 algorithm change would elevate false and politically divisive content.

"Whistleblower Frances Haugen has shined a light on how Big Tech companies like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube use harmful algorithms to recommend content in order to maximize profit, and the mass surveillance and data harvesting practices that power the algorithms," the petition reads. "Stopping these companies from amassing data by passing strong privacy laws that put people-not corporations-in control of our personal information will severely diminish these platforms' harms."

The groups are calling on Congress to subpoena information for an investigation into Facebook and to pass data privacy legislation that is "strong enough to effectively end Facebook's current business model." They're also asking that the Federal Trade Commission "move forward with rule making that prohibits companies from collecting, purchasing or otherwise acquiring user information beyond what is needed to provide the service requested by the user, and from using this information for another purpose or to transfer it to another company without the user's explicit, opt-in consent."

"The best way to stop Facebook's harms for the whole world is to cut off the fuel supply for its dangerous machine," the new website says. "These dangerous algorithms use our own personal data to manipulate us. They're hurting our kids, undermining democracy in the U.S. and globally, and exacerbating discrimination."

Besides Haugen's testimony, Facebook was hit with two outages in less than five days last week, affecting countless users around the world in a meltdown which many say highlights a growing need for antitrust action against the company.

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

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A coalition of nonprofits on Wednesday debuted HowToStopFacebook.org, a fresh push to encourage greater government regulation of the social networking giant aimed at forcing the company to change its business model.Why it matters: The campaign hopes to take the outrage expressed by legislators over the revelations of whistleblower Frances Haugen and translate it into action.Stay on top of the latest market trends and economic insights with Axios Markets. Subscribe for freeThe campaign is pushing

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We have the regulatory tools we need to fix Facebook

The Globe and Mail 14 October, 2021 - 09:13am

Former Facebook employee and whistle-blower Frances Haugen arrives to testify during a Senate committee hearing on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on Oct. 5.

Last week’s Senate testimony by Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen, as well as the Wall Street Journal reporting on thousands of pages of internal research and communication that she leaked, have the potential to change the debate about regulating social media, and should inform how Canada does so.

There have, of course, been many controversies over Facebook and other social media platforms. There have been previous whistle-blowers, many leaks and regular government hearings around the world. But this time is different, for three reasons.

First, while civil society leaders, researchers, investigative journalists and policy-makers have long identified and documented the harms of social media, Ms. Haugen has provided us with detailed documentation of internal research. While Facebook has denied these harms, and been very reluctant to share data that would allow for their independent study, we now know that they knew. These problems include harming the well-being of our children, the proliferation of hate speech and undermining the integrity of our democratic norms.

Second, Ms. Haugen has also shed light on the causes of these harms. While Facebook and other social platforms would like to suggest they are simply mirrors of society, reflecting back our own prejudices, divisions and social problems, they also play an important role in shaping them. Their algorithms shape the behaviour of their users, playing an important role in who and what is seen and heard, and these algorithms are calibrated for engagement. It turns out that too often content that engages us is also content that causes harm. And they know that.

Third, Ms. Haugen’s leak demonstrates the limits and failures of relying on self-regulation to mitigate these harms. The documents she leaked and her testimony show that when faced with choices between minimizing the harm identified by their own research or maximizing profit though growth and engagement, Facebook often chose the latter. This should not be surprising. Facebook is one of the most profitable companies in history and it got here by being, since its founding, singularly focused on growth and by wiring its incentive structures for it.

In short, Ms. Haugen has finally focused our conversation on the right problem: corporate decisions, product design and incentive structures that too often prioritize profit and growth over public safety and democratic responsibility. Instead of starting with the outcome of this structural problem – harmful speech – Ms. Haugen rightly calls for governments to focus on ensuring greater accountability and transparency over the companies that shape it. Fortunately, we have many of the regulatory tools we need to solve this problem.

The Canadian government has spent the past year developing legislation to address online hate speech. It is understandable why this was targeted first; hate speech is experienced viscerally by both politicians and the public – especially minority and marginalized communities. There are certainly some sensible things that could be done to ensure that already illegal speech is sufficiently enforced online, as we recommended last year. And while proposed legislation has helpfully provided the governance architecture to regulate social media (a new regulator and a council of experts to advise it), the government has been criticized for empowering these new authorities to act as public censors, overly focusing on the symptom of the problem (harmful speech) at the expense of the cause (the scale and incentives of the platforms themselves).

We believe the government now has an opportunity to empower this new regulator to focus on precisely what Ms. Haugen calls for: accountability and transparency. This is why the Commission and Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Expression, an initiative led by Canada’s Public Policy Forum, are focusing our work this year on policies that provide greater transparency into the behaviour and societal effects of these companies and greater accountability over their actions.

This is not a novel idea. It is precisely the oversight we demand of other sectors. We don’t simply trust Pfizer to develop a safe COVID-19 vaccine, we demand to see the evidence that it is safe. For social media, the policy tool kit could include better data sharing, transparency in the online ad market, robust auditing of algorithms, mandated harm and risk assessments, and exploring new forms of liability for the companies themselves.

This approach would minimize the hazards of restricting speech and instead focus on applying the same daylight provisions we demand of other industries. Greater transparency and accountability will make our public sphere healthier and strengthen our democracy. This is where governments should start.

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How do we protect children in the Digital Age?

The Indian Express 13 October, 2021 - 09:22pm

During a recent discussion in the US Congress, it was frankly acknowledged that for the big social media companies, profit is a higher priority than children’s mental health. A whistleblower of Facebook, Frances Haugen, said that her former employer company is “operating in the shadows”. She also accused it of hurting children and harming democracy by promoting social divisions.

Haugen tried to reveal the technical depths of the problem that the young consumers of Facebook face. For instance, she tried to explain how the company entices its customers to linger on content, enabling advertisers to target more accurately, and so on. How far her audience grasped the complex details is hard to say, but they seemed to agree with her that the existing legal restraints on hi tech giants like Facebook will have to be tightened further. Such a hope has been entertained numerous times in the past.

As expected, Facebook’s public face, Mark Zuckerberg, quickly accused Haugen of drawing a “false picture”. Digital giants have habitually exuded full confidence in their ability to address any problem that parents and teachers might bring up on behalf of children. One among Haugen’s charges is the impact Facebook makes on its teenage clients’ self-image. This is also not a new charge. Interestingly, the damage it refers to has never been translated into compensatory amounts to which the victims should be entitled. Nor has an attempt been made to assess how much harder the teacher’s duty — to nurture children’s sanity and intellectual growth — has become as a result of their participation in social media.

The problem that systems of education across the world face is far wider. Maria Ressa, this year’s Nobel prize winner for peace, put it accurately in an interview she gave a year ago to the BBC. Listing the factors that led to the decline of liberal democracy in the Philippines, she mentioned the behaviour modification effects of social media and other offerings of the internet. She pointed out how manipulation of people’s minds is strategised to numb the capacity to distinguish between propagated narrative and reality.

Behaviour modification is an old theme in training courses in the field of education. I am not surprised when it is mentioned as one of the aims of education. Other ways of looking at education have gained some space, but the lure of behaviourism has not faded. It received a sudden booster during the corona pandemic when the entire system of education embraced online teaching and pushed children into web wilderness. Few among parents knew how to perform their protective role. Even as schools closed down, the global Sadar Bazaar of digital offerings had finally, fully opened for India’s children.

Two salient questions directly concern education. One is how children can be protected from inappropriate content. Different varieties of such content — ranging from hateful material to pornography — are not just freely available now, its providers focus on children because they believe, along with many others, that “catching them young” guarantees long-range benefits. The second question is to save children from the effects of addiction to the digital media. When he was serving as education secretary, the late Sudeep Banerjee blocked the “one laptop per child” scheme because he was sure it would turn children into morons. He was worried about the addictive effects of digital inducement at an early age. The situation now is far worse than he could ever have imagined, and the pandemic has exacerbated it by compelling children to learn online.

Tech giants and their academic support armies have invaded the terrain where the family and school once reigned. Together, these two old institutions strove to protect childhood from predatory threats. Today, when digital industries have successfully invaded both home and school, no one knows how to protect children from exposure to things they ought not to see and messages they must not receive. Apart from pornographic material, there is falsehood and hateful propaganda of different kinds. Haugen has alerted the world to the scale at which false facts, hoaxes and rumours circulate through social media and serve as sources of profit for the companies that control these media. Her whistleblowing revelations are corroborated by Facebook’s own claims of clean-up activity. In a recent edition of Global Community Standards Enforcement Report, Facebook stated that it had removed 6.3 million pieces of bullying and harassment, 6.4 million pieces of organised hate speech, and 2.5 million pieces of self-injury content. Similar clean-up measures were taken on the photo-sharing platform Instagram.

The West took a long time creating a template of protected childhood. Europe took almost two centuries to put in place the legal and institutional structures required to keep children safe from exploitation. The functioning of these structures depended on consensus between state and society, including industrial houses, over the vulnerability of childhood as a stage of human life. Despite the elaborate legal framework that now exists in Western countries and in India as well, it has not been easy to bring justice to children caught in social misfortunes of different kinds. Protecting children has become far harder in the digital era. Predatory activity apart, the injurious potential lurking in communication networks has greatly increased with children’s own participation in these networks. Haugen’s revelations point towards a reality the world has done its best to ignore since the advent of social media about two decades ago.

If Harold Innis were alive today. he would have added a chapter to his 1951 classic, The Bias of Communication. His study of global history had led him to the conclusion that culture is a function of modes of communication. Seen from his perspective, digital platforms subtly shape —and not merely transmit — the expression of human emotions and thoughts. Considering the vast scale of injurious hate-promoting content that the so-called “social” media are handling, it seems we are witnessing an incarnation of humanity. In this incarnation, grown-ups behave like urchins throwing stones at passing vehicles. Maria Ressa and Frances Haugen are correct in saying in their different ways that if this behaviour becomes profitable, it can’t be good for society and democracy.

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