Facebook whistleblower says metaverse adds more privacy concerns

Facebook is coming under new scrutiny after unveiling its “metaverse” – which brings the internet to life in 3D. Whistleblower Frances Haugen warns that underlying concerns unveiled in the Facebook Papers about how the company operates remain unaddressed.

Virginia Mayo/AP
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Brussels, Nov. 9, 2021. Ms. Haugen has warned government officials in Washington and Europe about how big tech companies' business models can negatively impact users.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen warned Tuesday that the “metaverse,” the all-encompassing virtual reality world promised by the social media giant, will be addictive and rob people of yet more personal information while giving the embattled company another monopoly online.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Ms. Haugen said her former employer rushed to trumpet the metaverse because of the intense pressure it is facing after she revealed deep-seated problems at the company and energized legislative and regulatory efforts around the world to crack down on big tech companies.

“If you don’t like the conversation, you try to change the conversation,” the former product-manager-turned whistleblower said. The documents she has turned over to authorities and her testimony to lawmakers have drawn global attention for providing insight into what Facebook may have known about the damage its social media platforms can cause. She is in the midst of a series of appearances before European lawmakers and experts drawing up rules for social media companies.

Meta, the new name for the parent company of Facebook, denied it was trying to divert from the troubles it faces by pushing the metaverse. “This is not true. We have been working on this for a long time internally,” the company said in a statement.

It stressed that it’s working to responsibly build the metaverse – sort of the internet brought to life, or at least rendered in 3D. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described it as a “virtual environment” you can go inside of – instead of just looking at on a screen – and refocused Facebook’s business model on it, including renaming the company Meta.

Launching that new brand, in fact, draws attention to the company, it said in a statement, adding that if it didn’t want the scrutiny it would have delayed or scrapped the launch altogether.

But the new focus on metaverse creates a whole new set of dangers, Ms. Haugen said. In “Snow Crash,” the 1992 the sci-fi novel that coined the phrase, “it was a thing that people used to numb themselves when their lives were horrible,” she said.

“So beyond the fact that these immersive environments are extremely addictive and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live,” she said, “I’m also worried about it on the level of – the metaverse will require us to put many, many more sensors in our homes and our workplaces,” forcing users to relinquish more of their data and their privacy.

She said employees of companies that use the metaverse would have little option but to participate in the system or leave their jobs.

“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 is in its best interests,” she said.

And she cautioned the public not to expect more transparency.

“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.

Ms. Haugen has said Facebook’s systems amplify online hate and extremism, fail to protect young people from harmful content, and that the company lacks any incentive to fix the problems, in revelations that shed light on an internal crisis at the company that provides free services to 3 billion people.

To back up her allegations, she made a series of disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission that were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the AP.

In Tuesday’s interview, she expressed astonishment that the company would shift focus to a whole new realm while it is under such intense criticism about the areas where it is already working.

“They’re going to hire 10,000 engineers to work on video games when they haven’t actually gotten safety right on their main product,” Ms. Haugen said.

For that, she faulted Mr. Zuckerberg personally.

“So given that I see this pattern of choices where he prioritizes growth and expansion over making sure what he has is good, I think that is a failure of leadership,” she said.

The company denied that it’s putting profits over safety. “Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or wellbeing misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie,” it said, adding that it plans to spend more than $5 billion in 2021 on safety and security and employs more than 40,000 people to work on keeping users safe.

Mr. Zuckerberg has previously dismissed Ms. Haugen’s claims as a “coordinated effort” to paint a false picture of the company.

But officials in Washington and European capitals are taking her claims seriously. European Union lawmakers questioned her intensely Monday, before applauding her at the end of the 2 1/2 hour hearing.

The EU is drafting new digital rules for the 27-nation bloc that call for reining in big “digital gatekeepers,” requiring them to be more transparent about algorithms that determine what people see on their feeds and making them more accountable for the content on their platforms.

Facebook has said it largely supports regulations, with legislative efforts in the EU and United Kingdom much further along than those in the U.S.

Ms. Haugen has made stops in London and Berlin to speak to officials and lawmakers and spoke at a tech conference in Lisbon. She also will address French lawmakers in Paris on Wednesday.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Kelvin Chan reported from London.

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