Facebook’s focus on profits over safety putting lives in danger – Haugen tells Web Summit

Former tech giant employee speaks at the opening night of Web Summit in Lisbon

Paddy Cosgrave, chief executive  and co-founder of Web Summit. Photograph: Antonio Cotrim/EPA

Paddy Cosgrave, chief executive and co-founder of Web Summit. Photograph: Antonio Cotrim/EPA

 

Facebook’s decision to focus on profits over safety is putting lives in danger, whistleblower Frances Haugen told 40,000 attendees at the opening night of Web Summit on Monday.

Speaking at the opening ceremony Ms Haugen, formerly an employee on the Facebook integrity team, said the tech giant’s current methods for prioritising content in its newsfeed “amplifies the most extreme, polarising and divisive content”.

“Solutions exist to make Facebook safer,” she said. “It’s not a case of people saying bad things. It’s a case of who gets the largest megaphone. Engagement-based ranking is dangerous, because the most polarising content always gets the biggest audience.”

Ms Haugen, an employee of Facebook until May 2021, recently leaked tens of thousands of internal documents – including from employee discussion sites, company presentations and research papers – in a bid to show it had consistently put profits over safety. Ms Haugen has also filed eight complaints against the company with US securities regulators.

Facebook has largely been dismissive of Ms Haugen but her decision to leak the documents has served to shine a light on a company already under pressure for its failure to protect users.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s alleged leaking of a confidential copy of a proposed new GP contract to a friend in 2019 got a mention in front of the thousands of attendees in Lisbon, as Web Summit founder and chief executive Paddy Cosgrave mentioned it when referring to the organisation Whistleblower Aid, a non-profit that is supporting Ms Haugen.

Speaking from the stage, Mr Cosgrave noted how the organisation recently ventured into Ireland for the first time, by supporting publication of the story in the Village magazine.

An investigation into the leak is ongoing.

Speakers and attendees

Some 40,000 people are in Lisbon this week for Web Summit, including a large number of Irish people. This is down on the 70,000 who attended the last in-person event in 2019 but is due to capacity limits imposed by the Portuguese government as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the other speakers appearing on the opening night was Black Lives Matters co-founder Ayo Tometi.

“What I want to remind everyone is that when black people lead, when black people win, when black lives matter, we create a world where everybody benefits,” said Ms Tometi.

Also appearing was Greg Tarr (18), the winner of the 2021 BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, who told attendees about the technology his company Inferex has developed to detect deep fakes.

More than 700 speakers are expected at this year’s event, including founders and chief executives from more than 70 tech unicorns – privately-owned companies valued at $1 billion (€860 million) or more.

Among those scheduled to appear are Microsoft president Brad Smith, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Amazon chief technology officer Werner Vogels, N26 co-chief executive Maximilian Tayenthal and the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee. There is also a sprinkle of star quality from the likes of actor Amy Poehler and musician Tinie Tempah.

Speakers on Tuesday will include former British deputy prime minister and now Facebook vice-president of global affairs Nick Clegg, who will be seeking to put a more positive spin on the company’s activities, including the rebrand to Meta.