‘Tech superpower’ Ireland should take on social media giants, Frances Haugen says

Facebook whistleblower urges Data Protection Commission to be braver in taking on firms

Ireland is a "tech superpower" and other than the US has the most opportunity to influence the actions of social media platforms in terms of regulation, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has said.

Speaking while on a visit to Dublin, Ms Haugen said the State's unique position in policing tech giants under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) means it has a key role to play in forcing companies such as Facebook parent Meta to change the way it operates.

A former Facebook employee, Ms Haugen last year leaked tens of thousands of internal documents – including from employee discussion sites, company presentations and research papers – to the Wall Street Journal in a bid to show the social media platform had consistently put profits over safety.

Returning to the same theme in an interview hosted at Trinity College Dublin on Monday, Ms Haugen said she believed the move by the company to rebrand as Meta and to stake a claim to the "Metaverse" rather than seek to address safety concerns shows that it has not taken heed of widespread criticism.

“Facebook knows how to keep us safe without censoring us and they choose not to do so because the way the system works currently is more profitable,” she said.

Ms Haugen – who is meeting Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon on Tuesday – noted that Ireland was a "small country with a history of standing up for the little guys".

Confronting tech

Acknowledging that the Data Protection Commission (DPC), as the de facto regulator for tech companies' pan-European data activities, has a significant caseload, Ms Haugen still urged the DPC to be braver in confronting tech companies.

“They need to start thinking about what are the levers of change that they have. We need to remind them that this is their moment to shine. They have the ability to literally change history but the question is... are they willing to claim their agency to impact change?”

Ms Haugen also posited the idea of significantly larger fines being imposed on social media giants in the event of wrongdoing with any windfall being used to further boost headcount at the regulator.

“Remember in other industries the polluter pays,” she said. “The idea that Ireland should have to pay out of its own coffers to employ 20 to 30 specialists is crazy.”

Ms Haugen stressed that she wasn't anti-tech, having spent her working life at well-known companies that also include Google, Pinterest, Hinge and Yelp.

But, she said, people were dying in regions around the world because of choices that Facebook has made. These include opting not to employ local speakers who would have more awareness of hate being amplified via social media.

Despite much of her talk focusing on the negative impact of social media, Ms Haugen stressed that she remains an optimist. “Fatalism is how they steal our power,” she said.