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Facebook whistleblower testifies before a Senate panel

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Addictive, disastrous, putting profits before people - these are words that a former Facebook employee used today in testimony before Congress about the social media company.

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FRANCES HAUGEN: Facebook knows that when they pick out the content that we focus on using computers, we spend more time on their platform; they make more money.

CHANG: Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen alleges that the company knows its platforms can hurt younger users especially, but does little about it.

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HAUGEN: They shouldn't get a free pass on that because they're paying for their profits right now with our safety.

CHANG: We should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. And NPR's Shannon Bond covers the company. She joins us now. Hi, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So Haugen has been known for several weeks now as the Facebook whistleblower - right? - because she leaked thousands of pages of documents. Can you just quickly catch us up on how we even got to this moment today, why she ended up getting called by lawmakers to testify?

BOND: That's right. I mean, she - as you said, she leaked tens of thousands of pages of internal documents to the press, to Congress, to the SEC. And those - they detailed, among other things, how Instagram makes eating disorders, depression and other problems worse for some teenagers - lots of other problems, too. And so she came to Congress as a former Facebook insider who could offer real insight into how the company works, armed with its own research. And she painted a picture of a company that, as she puts it, puts profit and growth ahead of safety.

CHANG: And what was the reaction today from lawmakers to all of this? Like, how did they respond to her testimony?

BOND: Yeah, I mean, one called her an American hero. They said they would try to protect her from any retaliation by Facebook. This was a very receptive audience. I mean, just for an example, there was an exchange about Instagram. Now, Haugen's documents have already led to, actually, a major concession from Facebook. It said it would pause work on a version of Instagram for 10- to 12-year-olds. But Haugen told Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii that she'd actually be shocked if Facebook entirely stopped working on the project.

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HAUGEN: Facebook understands that if they want to continue to grow, they have to find new users. They have to make sure that the next generation is just as engaged with Instagram as the current one. And the way they'll do that is by making sure that children establish habits before they have good self-regulation.

BRIAN SCHATZ: By hooking kids.

HAUGEN: By hooking kids.

BOND: And there was bipartisan praise for Haugen. And, you know, that's pretty rare these days, Ailsa.

CHANG: Right. Well, I mean, it does sound like Democrats and Republicans are pretty united about the problems, but what are they proposing to do about the problems? And are they united on those possible solutions?

BOND: Well, Haugen pleaded with Congress to regulate Facebook. She says it's clear it's not going to change on its own. She compared it to big tobacco and says, you know, it's time for the government to step in with regulation. And so today we did hear calls from both sides of the aisle for tightening privacy protections for kids online, changing a law that shields tech companies from liability for much of what's posted on their platform. And there are bills, both from Republicans and Democrats, on the table right now in Congress. The question is - is this the moment that finally spurs action?

CHANG: Right. Is this the moment?

BOND: Right.

CHANG: OK. That's what lawmakers are saying, but what have we heard so far from Facebook?

BOND: Well, Facebook says it doesn't agree with Haugen characterizations. It denies it puts profit over safety. And just after the hearing, a Facebook executive accused her of stealing these documents. The company has tried to cast doubt on her. It says she was only there for less than two years. She wasn't in the room where executives made decisions. She didn't work on some of these topics, like Instagram and child safety. Senator Marsha Blackburn actually called out a Facebook spokesman who was tweeting about Haugen.

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MARSHA BLACKBURN: If Facebook wants to discuss their targeting of children, if they want to discuss their practices of privacy invasion or violations of the Children Online Privacy Act, I am extending to you an invitation to step forward, be sworn in and testify before this committee.

BOND: And I think it's a real indication lawmakers are not going to stop here. You know, they are already now putting pressure on CEO Mark Zuckerberg to appear before Congress. After the hearing, Senator Richard Blumenthal told reporters there are a lot of questions that he wants Zuckerberg to come and answer.

CHANG: That is NPR's Shannon Bond. Thank you, Shannon.

BOND: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.