Data watchdog wants full access to Facebook whistleblower's evidence

Data watchdog asks Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen for evidence and will act if social media giant has broken UK law

  • Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham wants to see all of the evidence 
  • Wants to see if Facebook allegedly broke UK law, especially related to children
  • Frances Haugen claimed Facebook’s products ‘harm children and stoke division’
  • Billionaire founder Mark Zuckerberg has strongly rejected Ms Haugen’s claims

Britain’s data protection watchdog has written to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen to request her full evidence to see whether the social networking giant ever breached UK law.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she particularly wants to see all of Ms Haugen’s files to examine them for violations in relation to the online protection of children. 

Ms Haugen has claimed Facebook’s products ‘harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy’, accusing the firm, founded by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg,  of refusing to change its products because executives elevate profits over safety.

She produced tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving the company – and on October 25 she will give evidence to a UK parliamentary committee scrutinising the draft Online Safety Bill  and its plans to more strictly regulate tech firms and social media.

‘We’re looking very closely about what is publicly available right now from Frances’s testimony, but I’ve also written to her to ask for access to the full reports of her allegations,’ Ms Denham told BBC News.

‘Because what I want to do with that information is analyse it from the UK’s perspective – are these harms applicable in the UK, especially through the lens of children?

‘We have rolled out a new children’s code which specifies design consideration to protect kids online.

Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham (pictured) said she wants to see all of Frances Haugen’s files  on Facebook to examine them for UK law violations – particularly in relation to the online protection of children

Ms Haugen has claimed Facebook’s products ‘harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy’, accusing the firm, founded by billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, of refusing to change its products because executives elevate profits over safety (Pictured: Ms Haugen speaks to the US Congress in Washington on October 5)

‘I want to see if these allegations point to any contravention of UK law and then I will take action.’

Facebook has rejected Ms Haugen’s claims, with Mr Zuckerberg saying her attacks on the company were ‘misrepresenting’ the work it does.

He said the company ‘cares deeply about issues like safety, well-being and mental health’ and that Ms Haugen’s recent evidence to a US congressional committee ‘just doesn’t reflect the company we know’.

‘At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritise profit over safety and well-being. That’s just not true,’ he added.

Who is whistleblower Frances Haugen? 

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, a Harvard-educated data scientist, had worked as a product manager on its civic misinformation team after joining the team in 2019.

Before leaving, she secretly copied tens of thousands of pages of internal research documents and leaked them to the Wall Street Journal.

One internal study cited 13.5 per cent of teen girls saying Instagram makes thoughts of suicide worse and 17 per cent of teen girls saying it makes eating disorders worse.

The 37-year-old told the US Congress last week that she had leaked the documents to prove to the world that Facebook ‘intentionally hides vital information from the public’.

Miss Haugen said it had ‘repeatedly misled’ about what its own research revealed about ‘the safety of children, the efficacy of its artificial intelligence systems and its role in spreading divisive and extreme messages’.

She argued that people deserved to know the truth – adding that ‘almost no one outside of Facebook knows what is happening inside’.

But Facebook executives have fought back, arguing that she had not worked directly on some of the issues she has been questioned on.

Miss Haugen has accused Facebook of relaxing efforts to stop misinformation after last year’s US election, allowing it to be used by those who stormed the Capitol in Washington in January.

She also said Facebook’s profits are based on advertising and its research has shown that ‘angry content’ is more likely to keep users engaged, helping it earn more, said Miss Haugen. 

But Facebook’s vice-president of global affairs Sir Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister, rejected the allegations.

Miss Haugen has agreed to meet with Facebook’s oversight board in the coming weeks to brief them about what she learned while working at the company. 

The Online Safety Bill legislation aimed at regulating social media is due to be put before Parliament for approval next year after the draft bill was published in May.

Others due to give evidence to the committee in the coming weeks include MoneySavingExpert founder Martin Lewis and barrister Gavin Millar QC. 

Also speaking will be Society of Editors president Alison Gow and Peter Wright, editor emeritus at DMG Media, whose brands include MailOnline and the Daily Mail.

Yesterday, the father of tragic teenager Molly Russell has slammed Facebook for ‘a crisis comms initiative’ after it announced new features to help safeguard children.

Ian Russell set up a suicide prevention charity after his 14-year-old daughter killed herself in 2017 after viewing disturbing content on the company’s Instagram app.

And Mr Russell, of Harrow, North West London, is yet to be convinced about the new functions which include prompting teenagers to take a break from using Instagram. 

Another feature will see the app start ‘nudging’ teenagers if they are repeatedly looking at the same content which may not be good for their wellbeing.

Facebook is also planning to introduce new optional controls to allow parents and guardians to supervise their children’s online activity.

But critics say the firm has acted only after pressure from outside, while others claim the plan lacks detail and they are skeptical about the effectiveness of the features. 

A Facebook spokesman told MailOnline that the new parental supervision tools were announced at the end of last month in a blog post by Instagram chief Adam Mosseri.

Frances Haugen will speak to the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on the draft Online Safety Bill on Monday, October 25 from 2.30pm 

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