Facebook/Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the virtual reality-fueled future could bring new privacy risks to our homes and workplaces, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said.
Last month, Zuckerberg announced that he would focus his company on the metaverse. While the concept has many meanings, to Zuckerberg, it’s an “even more immersive and embodied Internet,” where users can meet with friends, connect with colleagues, shop for goods and services, and so on. In other words, Zuckerberg wants to take people’s lives and put them inside a metaverse, preferably one he controls.
To Haugen, that’s a red flag. “Facebook should have a transparency plan for the metaverse before they start building all this stuff because they’ve demonstrated with regard to Facebook that they can hide behind a wall, they keep making unforced errors, they keep making things that prioritize their own profits over our safety,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Haugen was a product manager at Facebook until April of this year. Before she resigned, she gathered tens of thousands of documents detailing various problems at the company, ranging from harms to teens’ mental health to ethnic violence to special treatment for VIPs. She handed the documents over to Congress, the Wall Street Journal, and regulators at the SEC, where she also filed a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that the company breached its fiduciary duty by hiding many of its problems from shareholders.
In the wake of Haugen’s bombshells, Facebook rebranded its parent company as Meta, and Zuckerberg started touting the metaverse as the social media company’s next big thing. Haugen said the moves amounted to an attempt to distract from the company’s problems. Facebook’s mentality, she said, has been: “If you don’t like the conversation, you try to change the conversation.”
Yesterday, Haugen was in Brussels speaking before European Parliament. Her comments and question-and-answer session lasted nearly three hours and drew applause at the end. In her remarks, she warned that Facebook excels at “dancing with data,” and she encouraged lawmakers to ask Facebook for details about any data they receive from the company, including exactly how it was obtained. She also recommended that EU lawmakers focus on future-proofing the proposed Digital Services Act, which would increase pressure on platforms to moderate illegal content.
“The Digital Services Act that is now before this parliament has the potential to be a global gold standard,” she said in her opening statement. “It can inspire other countries, including my own, to pursue new rules that would safeguard our democracies. But the law has to be strong and its enforcement firm. Otherwise, we will lose this once-in-a-generation opportunity to align the future of technology and democracy.”
Facebook/Meta has sought to soften European lawmakers with the promise of creating 10,000 jobs in the bloc to develop its metaverse concept.
Haugen voiced concerns that a Facebook/Meta-owned metaverse will only supercharge problems that exist on the company’s current platforms. Virtual environments of the kind Zuckerberg is proposing have the potential to be “extremely addictive, and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live in,” she told the AP.
She’s also worried that Facebook/Meta’s push into the workplace will give people no choice but to hand over more personal data to the company. “In the case of workplaces, we don’t get to choose to be in those spaces,” she said. “If your employer decides they’re now a metaverse company, you have to give out way more personal data to a company that’s demonstrated that it lies whenever it’s in its best interests.”
That Facebook/Meta would launch a major initiative in the midst of a company-wide crisis is emblematic of how the company approaches problems, she said. It would rather “move on” than fix its existing products.
“The fact that they can afford 10,000 more engineers to build video games when they allegedly can’t afford to have 10,000 engineers working on our safety, I find that unconscionable,” Haugen told the European Parliament.