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Michael Goodwin: Facebook is too big to regulate, too popular and too important for Congress to tackle

Michael Goodwin: Facebook too large to regulate and popular enough for Congress not to address

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The news that the Facebook whistleblower would tell her story to Congress electrified Washington and the tech giant’s critics. Senators from both parties were salivating and whistleblower Frances Haugen didn’t disappoint, with an incisive condemnation of how her former employer knowingly enticed children and young teens in an insatiable dash for cash. 

“There is no accountability” for Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, said Haugen, who believes the company repeatedly lied about the content of its internal research. 

She released documents showing Facebook hid Instagram’s negative effects on teens’ mental health and revealed how it exempts popular ­users from rules, failed to block drug cartels and human traffickers from its platforms and said America’s ­national security was jeopardized. 

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Haugen stated that the documents he provided to Congress proved Facebook had repeatedly misled people. “I came forward with great personal risk, because I believe that we still have time for action.” 

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Her testimony was compelling and she was an engaging witness. She told her story to The Wall Street Journal first and then to “60 Minutes”. Haugen could make her testimony into a morality play about goodness and evil, rather than presenting confusing data or jargon about algorithmics. It made for captivating television, and the ­bipartisan amen chorus in Congress would lead any mildly informed observer to believe that Congress is about to drop the hammer. 

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 05: Aides confer as former Facebook employee Frances Haugen listens to opening statements during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing entitled 'Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower' on Capitol Hill October 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. Haugen left Facebook in May and provided internal company documents about Facebook to journalists and others, alleging that Facebook consistently chooses profit over safety. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

All the years of huffing and puffing about Big Tech’s abuses, then doing nothing, would come to an end because Haugen had delivered the goods. Congress would finally punish the company for going too far. 

Perhaps not. Because even as she was laying bare some of the dirty ­secrets, investors weighed in with their own verdict by buying Facebook stock and driving up the price. Whatever Congress is going to do, if anything, Wall Street apparently doesn’t think it will have much of an impact on profits, which hit a staggering $30 billion last year. 

Sen. Mike Lee: Facebook not being ‘adequately vigilant’ in protecting kids from harmful content Video

The day offered a perfect snapshot of America’s love-hate relationship with Facebook and its subsidiaries, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Indeed, the wailing over the six-hour outage the company suffered Monday confirmed not just the addictive quality for some of its nearly 3 billion users, but also the fact that advertisers and many businesses, especially small ones, are ­utterly dependent on Facebook’s platforms to reach the public. 

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Wall Street reacted to Monday’s outage by selling the stock, knowing the shutdown would directly hit the bottom line. Investors were more scared than Congress, as the stock lost much of its Monday loss. 

The result is that, despite Haugen’s bold move to pull back the curtains, there is no universal confidence that Congress will take big action. As with many other accusations, it is likely that the headline threat of Haugen’s claims will fade quickly. 

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Zuckerberg testified at numerous times and many senators were furious by his filibustering, evasive answers. However, there were no hot air and many senators complained Tuesday that the lobbyists from Zuckerberg and other tech companies had been able to buy off their peers. Of course, nobody mentioned names. 

The Journal will probably win the Pulitzer Prize and other awards for its reporting, but the possibility that the past is prologue in major regulation is a reflection of two bigger truths about American society. 

First, it is too paralyzed by large issues and public polarization in many areas. In this case, Congress’ inability to act even when most members say it must reflects the complexity not only of Facebook’s technical operations, but its general popularity. 

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It’s not too big to regulate, it’s too popular and too important in the lives of many users and businesses. 

Haugen and other people compared it with cigarette manufacturers. However, the task of going after fraudulent tobacco companies was easier as cigarette sales declined and there was a clear connection to some cancers. Face­book, on the other hand, continues to grow at phenomenal rates, routinely producing revenue increases of more than 25 percent a year, and its harmful effects are not as documented or obvious. 

Sen. Blackburn: Drug cartels, sex traffickers use Facebook for ‘ill intent’ Video

Haugen’s testimony about children also raises the uncomfortable issue for politicians of parental control, or the lack of it. It’s good politics to attack a global empire and its multibillionaire CEO. But asking parents and schools to encourage children to stop using Instagram and Facebook could spell doom for their careers. 

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The demand that Congress do something allows parents and their families to get off the hook and makes America seem like it will only be determined by what the government does. What happened to our ability and willingness to help others? 

Facebook for its part knows that Facebook has the advantage and is willing to give Congress the runaround. Even after Haugen’s damning testimony, a company statement belittled her experience and said she had answered six different times that she had no direct knowledge of certain corporate functions she was asked about. 

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Then the statement, echoing Clint Eastwood’s challenge in “Dirty Harry” to “make my day,” kicked the can back to Congress and actually dared it to regulate the company. 

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“We agree on one thing; it’s time to create standard rules for the Internet,” the statement said. “Instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it’s time for Congress to act.” 

You big-talkers?

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE FROM MICHAEL GOWIN
 



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