The Facebook whistleblower is to give evidence to MPs and peers scrutinising the online safety bill, amid calls for a toughening up of the landmark legislation.
Frances Haugen has triggered a deep crisis at Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire after she released tens of thousands of internal documents detailing the company’s failure to keep its users safe from harmful content. On Monday Haugen, 37, will testify in person at the joint committee scrutinising the draft online safety bill, a piece of legislation that places a duty of care on social media companies to protect users – with the threat of substantial fines if they fail to do so.
Speaking to the Observer before the hearing, Haugen said Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, chief executive and controlling shareholder, had not shown any readiness to protect the public from the harm his company is causing.
“Right now, Mark is unaccountable. He has all the control. He has no oversight, and he has not demonstrated that he is willing to govern the company at the level that is necessary for public safety.”
The online safety bill came into focus last week after the murder of Conservative MP David Amess. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, demanded criminal sanctions for bosses of digital platforms that fail to crack down on extremism, prompting Boris Johnson to pledge “tough sentences for those who are responsible for allowing this foul content to permeate the internet”.
However, government sources later rowed back on this. The government is holding in reserve the option of introducing criminal sanctions for executives who do not cooperate adequately with Ofcom, the communications regulator implementing the bill. Johnson has also pledged to fast-track the bill.
Earlier this month Haugen told US senators in Washington that Facebook put “astronomical profits before people” as she was questioned about a trove of documents that showed Facebook knew its Instagram photo-sharing app was damaging teen mental health and that its eponymous platform was being used to incite ethnic violence in Ethiopia.
Damian Collins, the Conservative MP and chair of the joint committee, said: “Frances Haugen’s testimony so far has made it even clearer that regulatory oversight of social media platforms, from democratically elected government, is urgently needed. She will bring valuable expertise to the scrutiny process, especially as the bill should empower Ofcom to access and act on the internal research and concerns.”
A new wave of revelations at the weekend from a group of US news publications showed Facebook struggled to contain rightwing misinformation on its platform in the run-up to the insurrection in Washington on 6 January and had been used to spread religious hatred in India. Further stories based on the documents are expected from a wider consortium on Monday.
The joint committee has also heard calls from witnesses for elements of the bill to be toughened. The information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, has said Ofcom should be given auditing powers to check the inner working of tech companies, including the algorithms that help tailor the content that a user consumes. Haugen is due to speak at 2pm.
Child protection campaigners have also called for the bill to have stronger safeguards for children and criminal sanctions for executives who know that their platforms are putting young people at risk and are failing to act.
On Sunday the BBC broadcast a meeting between Haugen and the father of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old British schoolgirl who killed herself in 2017 and viewed content on social media – including on her Instagram account – linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before her death. Ian Russell told Haugen: “I look at a huge corporation with massive resources and say, ‘there must be more you can be doing’.”
The online safety bill covers tech firms that allow users to post their own content or to interact with each other, which includes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube. Search engines such as Google will also be included as well as commercial pornography sites like OnlyFans and video games that allow users to talk to each other.
Facebook’s vice-president of content policy, Monika Bickert, said on Sunday that the tech industry “needs regulation” because it should not be left to make the rules on issues including harmful online content on its own.
“The UK is one of the countries leading the way with wide-ranging proposals on everything from hate speech to child safety and, while we won’t agree with all the details, we’re pleased the online safety bill is moving forward,” she wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.