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MaltaToday 10 November 2021 MIDWEEK

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15 maltatoday | WEDNESDAY • 10 NOVEMBER 2021 NEWS These articles are part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. These articles reflect only the authors' view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains. Facebook whistleblower says Digital Services Act can rein in social media giant MATTHEW VELLA FACEBOOK whistleblower Frances Hau- gen testified at a European Parliament joint hearing on Monday. Haugen's testimony may help lawmak- ers in Brussels in their policy measures to have the best possible chance at rein- ing in big tech companies like Facebook who now hold an undeniable position of power within European economies and societies. Her hearing comes at an opportune time in the midst of an EU push to reg- ulate the online space through compre- hensive regulation known as the digital services act (DSA). At the time of writing the DSA is surrounded by its own controversy as groups that represent journalists, media freedom organizations and civil society groups did not all exactly welcome the proposed legislation with open arms. Some, such as the #OffOn coalition, were extremely concerned with its cur- rent state and actually described the un- intended effects of the law as an affront to fundamental freedoms, rights and democracy. "If there are only two things everyone takes away from these disclosures it should be that first, Facebook chooses profit over safety every day, and without bold action from lawmakers this will continue. The second is that Facebook has exploited its ability to hide the ac- tual behaviour of the platform to allow our safety to decay to an unacceptable level. "If Facebook is allowed to continue to operate in darkness we will only see escalating tragedies as a result. I came forward at great personal risk because I believe we still have time to act, but we must act now thank you." The committees for the internal mar- ket and consumer protection, legal af- fairs, economic and monetary affairs, industry research and energy and the committee for civil liberties, justice and home affairs were joint conveners of the Haugen hearing. "I am especially interested to learn if Frances Haugen has specific sugges- tions for our work on the Digital Servic- es Act regarding the liability of online platforms and marketplaces, recom- mender systems and algorithms," said MEP Christel Schaldemose. Haugen's 15-minute presentation was a strong indictment of Facebook's busi- ness practices, brimming with stern warnings for the public, counter-bal- anced by hopeful assertions about the potential the DSA has to rectify this and take everyone to a brighter digital future. "Facbeook damages the health and safety of our communities and threatens the integrity of our democracy," Hau- gen, formerly Facebook's lead product manager for civic misinformation and then counter-espionage. "Facebook repeatedly encountered conflicts between its own profits and our safety. Facebook consistently re- solved these conflicts in favour of its profits. The result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism and polarization. It undermines societies around the world, in some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills peo- ple. In other cases, their profit optimi- zation machine is generating self-harm and self-hate especially for vulnerable groups like teenage girls." Despite her harsh critique of Facebook, Haugen pointed out that the world is at a crossroads and that this juncture is a "once in a generation opportunity". "The DSA has the potential to be a global gold standard," Haugen said, call- ing the law "a content-neutral approach to address the systemic risks and harms of the overall business model." Haugen also drew attention to three critically important points: risk assess- ments and access to privacy aware da- ta streams, comprehensive rules and stands for the business model and the danger of loopholes and exceptions. Interestingly, Haugen signalled her concerns over exceptions in the DSA for regulating journalistic content. "Let me be clear: every modern disinforma- tion campaign will exploit news media channels on digital platforms by gaming the system; if the DSA makes it illegal for platforms to address these issues, we risk undermining the effectiveness of the law indeed we may be worse off than today's situation." She explained that the problem is that "only Facebook gets to look under the hood" in terms of accessing their own data and internal knowledge of the al- gorithms at play, such as the engage- ment-based content-ranking systems. Haugen recommended that Facebook be made more accountable and trans- parent in terms of its algorithms, safety protocols and data, all of which should be disclosed and subject to public audit- ing, research and analysis by academics as as governments. "Simply put, people need to know ex- actly how Facebook works and govern- ments and regulators need to be given access to Facebook's data to concrete- ly assess whether actions they are tak- ing to rectify problems are really being done in good faith and having a real ef- fect," she said. She also cautioned on the over-reli- ance on artificial intelligence to moni- tor and police the platform because of its problem understanding the wider context which limits its utility. Haugen described the current state of AI used for this purpose like "asking 1,000 third-graders to solve a problem... AI simply is not developed enough yet to regulate the complexity of the multi- lingual online space." Haugen also pointed out the differ- ential harm taking place to non-Eng- lish speaking users of the platform who simply do not get the same sort of pro- tection from disinformation and harm- ful content because Facebook is inept at understanding and addressing such content in the plethora of languages used on the platform. Haugen said the DSA could be what finally forces platforms like Facebook to take responsibility for the effects their products and services have on society. "Even Facebook's own internal regu- lators can't even access the company's own data on public safety, much less conduct an independent audit... How is the public supposed to assess if Face- book is resolving conflicts of interest in a way that is aligned with the pubic good, if it has no visibility and no con- text into how Facebook really operates? This must change." Frances Haugen

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