JThis week, more than 124,000 documents leaked by whistleblower Mark MacGann, Uber’s former chief lobbyist for Europe, detailed how Uber flouted laws, tricked police, exploited violence against drivers and secretly lobbied over governments in order to aggressively build his global empire.
Last year I leaked thousands of documents to the US government exposing Facebook’s neglect of the harm caused by its products. As with the documents provided by MacGann, the public would never have known this information existed even if a whistleblower had not tipped them off.
The Uber records clearly illustrate the critical importance of whistleblowers. They also present choices for governments and the citizens they represent. Technology has always been ahead of its regulators. It takes time for a culture of accountability to develop around any emerging technology or industry, and for governments to understand how they work and what costs are passed on to the public.
The most critical technologies that will drive and define our economy in the years to come are radically less transparent than those that drove our economy a hundred years ago. As the automobile industry became more complicated and more important in society, the public could walk alongside it. People could buy a car and smash it, buy a car and take it apart, buy a car and put sensors in to verify that its manufacturers’ claims were true. Accountability has grown along with the industry.
For most digital technologies, this cannot happen. Critical design choices are hidden behind our screens, where the public cannot access them. The operation of a system such as Facebook is impossible to inspect from the outside. Academics and journalists are spending millions of dollars building third-party tools to harvest gleams of data from Facebook’s systems.
This investment is key to exposing Facebook’s failures. For example, the company’s Highly Viewed Content report in the “Transparency Center” manipulates data to hide the fact that inflammatory content keeps coming up in your News Feed when people debate in the comments section. As a former insider, I know this, but Facebook refuses to share this information with an outside researcher. This kind of data access is essential to investigate distorted portrayals of Facebook and to gain democratic control of these platforms.
If we can never extract threads of knowledge from outside the curtain that shields bad behavior – and only then at extreme cost – we will never have effective accountability. That’s why big tech whistleblowers are playing an increasingly important role as a line of defense. They pierce the corporate veil in the name of public safety. We must act to ensure that future whistleblowers have the same, if not stronger, protections.
People often ask me how my journey as a whistleblower has been: whether I’m okay with all the attention and public scrutiny I’ve received. The truth is that I’m fine. I chose to follow my conscience, and now I can sleep at night. I’m lucky that the worst corners of the internet didn’t come for me, as it does for many women and minorities who speak out in public.
I know I’m lucky. Not all whistleblowers fare so well. Daniel Motaung was a Facebook moderator working in Kenya. He was paid just $2.20 an hour and forced to watch graphic footage of suicide and murder day after day in a content moderation factory — a fate, he says, that drove him, along with many of his colleagues, to suffer from PTSD and worse. He was later fired by Facebook outsourcing partner Sama in 2019 after he bravely led more than 100 of his co-workers in an organizing effort for better wages and working conditions. He is now suing Sama and Meta, alleging that he and his former colleagues are victims of forced labor, human trafficking and union busting. Facebook is trying to silence him; the company asked a judge to “break the whip” on Motaung to prevent him from speaking to the media. The double standards applied to him to follow his conscience are unfair. His persecution must end.
Technology has always outpaced the regulations that help bring it back to the common good. Good governance takes time, but this gap is widening with the acceleration of technological development. The ability of big tech to operate in the dark and the complete asymmetry of their information seriously endangers the public and entire democracies.
Governments can never ensure public safety in isolation. We need vetted scholars and researchers who can ask questions independently and create frameworks for us to think through the issues. We need litigators who hold corporations accountable when they cut corners to make a profit. We need investors who understand what good governance looks like to ensure companies don’t focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term success. We need technologists who care deeply about designing technologies for individual and democratic well-being.
We also need whistleblowers.
Our only safe path is to work for strong laws that protect whistleblowers around the world. When the United States enacted sweeping whistleblower protections in 2002 following corporate scandals, it was at the forefront of granting employees of publicly traded companies whistleblower rights. alert. Now is the time to extend protections to all employees of private companies as well. We can no longer afford to let the future operate in obscurity. Democracy depends on it.
Frances Haugen is a former Facebook product manager and advocate for accountability and transparency in social media
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