Facebook whistleblower: ‘They could do horrible things to me’
Frances Haugen is worried Facebook could come after her in response to the company’s internal documents that she handed over to lawmakers and media outlets worldwide.
Speaking to POLITICO in Brussels, the former Facebook engineer said she had decided to go public because her discussions with regulators and policymakers — she has briefed a U.S. Senate subcommittee, a British parliamentary group and the European Parliament on the company’s inner workings — meant that her name would eventually have been made public.
“I know that they could do horrible things to me,” said Haugen when asked about Facebook potentially filing a lawsuit against her. “They could, you know, tarnish my name. They could fund troll armies. They could sue me. There’s lots of things they could do. But compared to having a million lives on the line, none of those harms seem like things that outweigh that.”
Haugen has filed for so-called whistleblower protection with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which would protect her from potential Facebook lawsuits on information that she provided to regulators.
A Facebook executive told U.S. lawmakers in October that the company would not retaliate against anyone who provided internal documents to U.S. lawmakers. A Facebook spokesman, however, declined to confirm to POLITICO whether the company would take separate legal action against Haugen for her revelations to other governments or to the media.
Haugen urged other whistleblowers, from both within Facebook, which recently changed its company name to Meta, and other platforms, to come forward if they believed these firms were not doing the right thing by their users and wider society. She stressed that tech workers should seek protection to stop any potential retaliation from their employers.
“It’s important to disclose to the SEC because if you work for a public company, that provides you with whistleblower protections. Or it’s important to appropriately disclose to Congress because that’s protected,” she said. “There are options, there are safe paths. You’re not alone.”
Haugen said she welcomed the European Union’s upcoming online content moderation rules, known as the Digital Services Act, as what happens in the 27-country bloc will likely have a knock-on effect on how countries, including the United States, tackle the problem of policing social media.
But she stressed that the EU’s proposals were not perfect, particularly because the bill still allows companies not to disclose internal data to regulators and third-party researchers if it is related to proprietary trade secrets. She also criticized how Brussels’ proposals currently do not tackle content that is legal but potentially harmful to people online.
“Any solution that scales across the European Union will also likely bootstrap some of those interventions in other parts of the world,” she said. “There’s a real opportunity here, for if Europe can get the Digital Services Act right, that can actually provide a foundation that will make people safe in a lot of places.”