Frances Haugen: ‘I never wanted to be a whistleblower. But lives were in danger’

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This was not Frances Haugen’s program A. The Facebook whistleblower says she does not similar being the centre of attention, but what she saw portion moving astatine Mark Zuckerberg’s societal media empire compelled her into enactment – and made her famous.

“When I look astatine what I did, this was not my program A. It wasn’t my program B, it wasn’t my program C. It was similar my program J oregon something,” she laughs. “No 1 sat maine down and said ‘what I privation you to bash is whistleblow’.”

But that is what Haugen did. In May this twelvemonth she near her presumption arsenic a merchandise manager astatine the societal media elephantine and took tens of thousands of interior documents with her. The documents person triggered a maelstrom of allegations, including that Facebook knew its products were damaging teenagers’ intelligence health, were fomenting taste unit successful countries specified arsenic Ethiopia and were failing to curb misinformation earlier the 6 January Washington riots. On Monday, Haugen volition instrumentality her damning views of the institution to Westminster erstwhile she testifies earlier MPs and peers. Meanwhile, Facebook spirals deeper into crisis.

Haugen, 37, says the turning constituent came erstwhile she moved successful with her mother, who had fixed up an world vocation to go a priest. “I americium truly fortunate that my parent is an episcopal priest,” says Haugen, who was calved and raised successful Iowa. “I lived with her for six months past twelvemonth and I had specified profound distress due to the fact that I was seeing these things wrong of Facebook and I was definite it was not going to beryllium fixed wrong of Facebook.”

Her concerns implicit an evident deficiency of information controls successful non-English connection markets, specified arsenic Africa and the Middle East, wherever the Facebook level was being utilized by quality traffickers and equipped groups successful Ethiopia, were a cardinal origin successful her determination to act.

“I did what I thought was indispensable to prevention the lives of people, particularly successful the planetary south, who I deliberation are being endangered by Facebook’s prioritisation of profits implicit people. If I hadn’t brought those documents guardant that was ne'er going to travel to light.”

Speaking to the Observer implicit a video link, Haugen displays nary of the accent you’d expect from taking connected a near-$1tn (£730bn) institution with its ranks of lawyers and advisers. Haugen’s expansive and upbeat answers, sometimes punctuated with laughter, opposition with the measured show she gave to US senators connected Capitol Hill connected 5 October successful which she memorably accused the institution of putting “astronomical profits earlier people”. It’s the benignant of speech you’d expect to person with a palmy Silicon Valley nonrecreational moving astatine 1 of the world’s biggest tech companies, which Haugen was until 5 months ago.

“We person intentionally not been doing galore interviews, due to the fact that it is not astir me, it’s astir the documents,” she says. “I don’t propulsion day parties due to the fact that I don’t similar being the centre of attention.”

Haugen says her friends and household person been supportive since she stepped guardant this month arsenic the root of a bid of Wall Street Journal revelations based connected her leaks. “A person of mine, close earlier I did testimony, gave maine this fantastic saying, which is what I repetition to myself erstwhile I person anxiety, which is, it’s not astir you: you are the conduit for the documents,” she says.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg, main enforcement serviceman and laminitis of Facebook, controls a bulk of voting shares successful the company. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Haugen says her caller home, adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean successful Puerto Rico, helps. She is talking to the Observer from the Caribbean land and US territory successful its superior San Juan, wherever she is afforded an anonymity that she doubts she would person been fixed successful bluish California.

“I consciousness precise fortunate that I unrecorded successful Puerto Rico due to the fact that nary 1 has ever recognised maine here.”

She adds: “I deliberation if I was inactive surviving successful San Francisco it would beryllium truly stressful due to the fact that I americium definite that radical would recognise maine there.” In San Juan, she says, it’s “a batch easier to enactment sane. Here I tin spell for a aquatics oregon … I similar to cook. I tin spell to immoderate of the small markets and I conscionable consciousness similar a mean person. So it hasn’t felt similar that large of a change, really.”

There are wellness reasons for the Puerto Rico determination too. A decennary agone she was diagnosed with coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition, and successful 2014 she entered an intensive attraction portion with a humor clot successful her thigh. She recovered, but inactive suffers symptom from nervus harm successful her legs.

Haugen admits she isn’t looking guardant to the colder upwind erstwhile she arrives successful Europe, for a travel that includes her Westminster assignment connected Monday and the yearly Web Summit tech conference successful Lisbon adjacent week. But she is successful immense request and the documents she leaked proceed to marque waves, with a caller merchandise of reports into those memos by a radical of media organisations including the New York Times, connected apical of the WSJ’s archetypal efforts. This play it was reported that Facebook bungled its effort to curb hatred code earlier the 6 January Washington riots and that employees repeatedly flagged concerns earlier and aft the US statesmanlike election, erstwhile Donald Trump tried to overturn Joe Biden’s victory.

The revelations person been relentless since the WSJ archetypal started reporting connected the documents and springiness the content of a institution that is unable, oregon unwilling, to combat the consequences of its immense scale. Facebook’s household of apps – including its main platform, Facebook messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – is utilized by 2.8 cardinal radical a day. With politicians and regulators connected some sides of the Atlantic closing in, it has been reported that Zuckerberg volition denote a rebranding of the genitor institution this week successful a bid to enactment region betwixt his concern and the revelations.

For Haugen, Zuckerberg is simply a large portion of the problem. The Facebook laminitis and main enforcement controls a bulk of the voting shares successful the company, which makes his presumption unassailable. That has to change, says Haugen, and she believes autarkic investors successful Facebook would question alteration astatine the apical if they could.

“I judge successful shareholder rights and the shareholders, oregon shareholders minus Mark, person been asking for years for 1 share, 1 vote. And the crushed for that is, I americium beauteous definite the shareholders would take different enactment if they had an option.”

Against a backdrop of revelations astir Instagram’s damaging interaction connected teen intelligence wellness and Facebook’s failure to constabulary rightwing hatred code and misinformation successful its location market, Haugen says Zuckerberg has failed to amusement helium tin support the nationalist from the antagonistic effects of his networks.

January 6 riots astatine  the US Capitol
Recent reports suggest that Facebook bungled its effort to curb hatred code earlier the 6 January riots astatine the Capitol successful Washington DC. Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

“He has each the control. He has nary oversight and helium has not demonstrated that helium is consenting to govern that institution astatine the level that is indispensable for nationalist safety.”

In a connection Facebook said: At the bosom of these stories is simply a premise which is false. Yes, we’re a concern and we marque profit, but the thought that we bash truthful astatine the disbursal of people’s information oregon wellbeing misunderstands wherever our ain commercialized interests lie. The information is we’ve invested $13bn and person implicit 40,000 radical to bash 1 job: support radical harmless connected Facebook.”

Facebook reported a nett income, a US measurement of profit, of $29bn (£21bn) past year.

The spokesperson added: “We person nary commercialized oregon motivation inducement to bash thing different than springiness the maximum fig of radical arsenic overmuch of a affirmative acquisition arsenic possible. Like each platform, we are perpetually making hard decisions betwixt escaped look and harmful speech, security, and different issues, and we don’t marque these decisions wrong a vacuum – we trust connected the input of our teams, arsenic good arsenic outer taxable substance experts to navigate them. But drafting these societal lines is ever amended near to elected leaders, which is wherefore we’ve spent galore years advocating for updated net regulations.”

Haugen’s quality successful London connected Monday is earlier the associated committee connected the draught online information bill. The proposed bill – which Boris Johnson has promised to accelerated track – imposes a work of attraction connected societal media companies to support users from harmful content, oregon look the menace of multibillion-pound fines from the communications regulator, Ofcom.

Haugen says she is inactive considering what to accidental astir the measure but backs astatine slightest 1 of its measures, which requires companies specified arsenic Facebook to springiness Ofcom a “risk assessment” of contented that causes harm to users. “I bash judge successful things similar hazard assessments. Facebook should person to supply articulations of what they judge to beryllium the risks connected the platform. Right present Facebook ne'er gives america details astir however they are going to hole problems.” Before she near Facebook, Haugen worked connected the company’s civic integrity squad which, earlier it was disbanded, had been tasked with monitoring electoral interference connected the platform.

Haugen wants to spot much “friction” introduced into Facebook’s systems, specified arsenic Twitter asking users to work a nexus earlier they station it, to person the Facebook level clasp a chronological, and truthful little provocative quality feed, and for greater transparency to beryllium forced connected the company. Facebook, and the immense amounts of information it amasses internally, indispensable look regular and advertisement hoc scrutiny by regulators, says Haugen.

“There needs to beryllium an avenue wherever we tin escalate a interest and they really person to springiness america a response.”

In the future, Haugen wants to commencement a non-profit organisation that supports this benignant of societal media reform. “These are the solutions that volition support radical successful the astir fragile places successful the world.”

In the meantime, she hopes that Zuckerberg and his elder colleagues listen.

“I person this anticipation my disclosure volition beryllium ample enough, and springiness interaction enough, that helium gets an accidental to say, ‘I made immoderate mistakes, I privation to commencement over’,” she says. “Because the constituent of motivation bankruptcy is … saying you merit a accidental to commencement over, that we arsenic a nine bash amended erstwhile radical get a accidental to hitch the slate.”