EXCLUSIVE — A Republican senator is claiming Facebook responded to her inquiry about the company's harmful effects on children by suggesting it hasn't done anything wrong, refusing to give access to relevant internal research, and egregiously misleading Congress and its users.
GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming sent a letter to the tech giant in late October asking for internal research regarding the platform's negative effects on children that Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen first brought to light and asked the company for how it would resolve these significant issues and equip parents with the right tools to help their children.
The senator and her staff were severely frustrated and disappointed by the response they got from Facebook, which they shared exclusively with the Washington Examiner.
They said that Facebook's written response to them along with other interactions Lummis's staff have had with Facebook executives show that the social media giant is driven by profits, is consistently and intentionally misleading members of Congress, is not transparent about its internal research, and has not found sincere ways to help parents protect their children from the ills of Facebook and Instagram.
“Facebook is blatantly ignoring congressional requests and misleading policymakers,” Lummis told the Washington Examiner. “Most alarmingly, they do not seem to care about their continuous shortcomings, both with their users and in their interactions with Congress.”
Lummis and her staff say that Facebook knows parents are facing issues with their children being hurt by content and ads served up to them on Facebook’s platforms, but the company has nevertheless not given parents the right tools and resources to mitigate this problem, which the senator’s office finds shocking.
“In their letter to us, Facebook just pointed to a myriad of things on their website that parents will likely never actually stumble upon or use, it just buries them in overwhelming information that's inconvenient and hard to find,” a senior aide to Lummis told the Washington Examiner.
“The majority of their answers to us were a regurgitation of links already on their website that don’t actually answer or help with the questions and concerns of parents,” the aide said.
Furthermore, Facebook has sowed distrust in members of Congress and their staff by dodging questions and failing to provide internal research the company has conducted related to children’s use of its platforms, claiming confidentiality for the documents the senator requested.
”The lack of transparency is frustrating. They send their experts to the Hill, and they give half answers and provide spin on the other half,” a senior aide to Lummis said.
“The Facebook executives that meet with us are very well trained on deflecting from real problems within the company so outsiders can't see them,” the aide said.
MAJOR CIVIL SOCIETY GROUPS CALL ON FACEBOOK TO STOP TARGETING CHILDREN WITH ADS AND SURVEILLANCE
Facebook's global head of safety, Antigone Davis, said during a Senate hearing in September that the platform has "very limited advertising to young people," which the senator’s staff said was misleading because new research from last week shows that Facebook is still using its algorithms to target children.
A global coalition of over 40 civil society groups, including Amnesty International and ParentsTogether, called on Facebook earlier this month to stop surveillance advertising aimed at children, accusing the technology giant of misleading the public about its practices when it comes to youth.
The senator and her staff also blasted Facebook for stopping academics, researchers, and members of the public from accessing anonymized, privacy-protected Facebook data in order to study the company's targeted advertising system and its algorithms, which have hurt children, according to Haugen.
”We lean on the academic community for understanding how social media platforms like Facebook and their inner mechanisms function, so if they’re being shut out, it makes our job of protecting people very difficult,” the Lummis aide said.
Former top Facebook executives say that the company has to keep some of its research private in order to make the right decisions internally and protect those it surveyed to gather such data.
“Facebook sharing its proprietary research does shut down debate internally within the company, which is a real problem,” said Katie Harbath
“We need to find some sort of regulatory structure that allows for Facebook to do research internally and privately while also allowing for the public to see what's happening on the platform. A balance between the two,” Harbath added.
She added that it is not acceptable for Facebook to leave Congress or users in the dark regarding what content and ads it shows children and what it does with user data.
Harbath also said that leaders in Congress and executives at Facebook often have different definitions of the same words and phrases, such as what it means to track and target children, which creates significant misunderstandings and mistrust between the two sides.
“There’s definitely a need for more transparency from Facebook to explain its inner workings that affect children, it does need to be held accountable. But some of the problems arise because everyone’s talking past one another,” she added.
Facebook, in its response to Lummis, defends its actions in relation to children’s safety and the tools that it has given parents to tackle such issues, which have been created thanks to private internal research.
“We take the issue of safety and well-being on our platforms very seriously, especially for the youngest people who use our services. That’s why we do research so we can make our products better,” Facebook said in the letter to Lummis.
The social media giant, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, claims it is looking for ways to allow external researchers more access to their data in a way that respects people’s privacy.
Lummis’ staff said that Facebook’s response to them clarified that the company cannot be trusted to self-regulate itself and showed them how frustrating and oftentimes meaningless interactions with Facebook employees can be.
“Sunlight disinfects, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to shine the light on Facebook’s privacy abuses. For the sake of our children and for our personal privacy, we must put up real fences around Big Tech,” Lummis said.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER
Lummis’s staff expressed cautious optimism regarding a legislative push next year through new antitrust and privacy bills on Capitol Hill that could help hold platforms such as Facebook accountable for bad behavior.