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Why Facebook Is More Worried About Europe Than the U.S.

The United Kingdom was just her first stop. Haugen is scheduled next to talk to European Union lawmakers in Brussels, and then officials in Paris. And unlike in America, where Congress and regulators struggle to rein in the biggest platforms, Facebook is already under mounting pressure from a slew of online content rules coming down the pike across the Old World.

They’re enough to keep Mark Zuckerberg up at night.

For tech companies like Facebook, Europe — whose more than 450 million people represent roughly a quarter, or $20 billion, of the social network’s yearly profits — is at the vanguard of pushing for aggressive new laws to rein in the excesses of the digital world. Its regulators, too, have more than a decade of experience in fining some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names for both antitrust and privacy abuses.

In Brussels, officials are finishing rules that require Facebook to carry out regular independent audits of how they’re handling potentially harmful content. They also will force the company to open up its closely guarded algorithms used to promote material in people’s feeds to regulators. If the firm fail to comply, the tech giant —which recently changed its name to Meta as part of a rebranding effort — could face fines of up to six percent of its annual revenue, or tens of billions of dollars.

In Berlin and London, similar proposals are either on the books or making their way through national parliaments after European policymakers have spent years hammering out the details about how the world’s largest social media company should be held more accountable for what is posted online.

Here’s a closer look at why Facebook should be more worried about Europe than the United States.

Content laws are coming, and coming soon.

Unlike the ongoing partisan divide in Washington over regulating social media, politicians in the European Union and United Kingdom are already on the same page and they are about to make Facebook do something it has long tried to avoid: take legal responsibility for content.

Under proposals expected to be completed by next year, the EU wants to overhaul its existing hands-off approach to Facebook and others via its so-called Digital Services Act. Those rules will make it mandatory for tech companies to immediately remove illegal content, such as hate speech, or face hefty fines. For politically divisive or other legal but harmful material, such as posts sowing distrust in a country’s election, social media platforms must also show outside auditors and regulators how they are stopping that content from spreading like wildfire.

Across the English Channel, British lawmakers are going one step further. In rules, known as the Online Safety Bill, to be voted on by the end of 2021, the likes of Facebook will be held to a so-called duty of care to protect their users from both illegal and legal, but harmful, content — a world first. Penalties for inaction include fines totaling 10 percent of a company’s annual revenue and potential prison sentences for social media executives.

Haugen isn’t just criticizing Facebook, she’s making suggestions on actual rules.

When the former Facebook employee testified to a U.S. Senate subcommittee in October, the whole country was captured by her inside knowledge into how the tech giant potentially put children at risk on Instagram and failed to stem the spread of political divisiveness across its platforms. The company denies wrongdoing.

But as Haugen takes the same message to European lawmakers, her role in pushing for new laws to stem such abuse is fundamentally different.

On Oct. 25, she testified, in person, to British lawmakers scrutinizing the country’s online content proposals that have been years in the making. While officials peppered her with questions about how Facebook had potentially failed to protect people online, they also got down to the nitty-gritty of what would make good legislation.

That included specific questions about whether the U.K.’s proposals should be expanded to police online political ads (currently, they don’t), and how best to provide outside researchers with the data access to ensure social media companies were playing by the rules.

Expect more of the same when Haugen jets into Brussels ahead of her testimony to the European Parliament on Nov. 8 and then travels to Paris on Nov. 10.

European politicians are still debating how far the 27-country bloc’s rules should go, including battles over whether the targeting of people online with ads should be outlawed all-together. But despite these disagreements over the law’s finer points, officials still expect the EU legislation to be signed off by next summer.

Haugen faces a tougher crowd in Europe.

America is behind Europe when it comes to policing the digital world — and online content is no different.

From the EU’s privacy standards, which have become the de facto global norm, to a spate of antitrust investigations into the likes of Google that date back more than a decade, the 27-country bloc has been leading the fight against Big Tech before it became fashionable in Washington.

That has put a different spin on Haugen’s testimony in Europe compared to her recent appearance on Capitol Hill.

U.S. lawmakers, deep down, know it’s unlikely they’ll pass meaningful changes to the country’s online content rules, known as Section 230, anytime soon. In Europe, discussions about how to do just that — and a series of legislative stumbles along the way as countries have tried out different approaches — are at least five years ahead of what’s going on in the U.S.

So when Haugen laid out to European lawmakers what they should do to rein in Facebook, it has not gone down as smoothly versus her discussions with U.S. officials.

In October, after giving evidence to the Senate, she briefed senior policymakers at the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch responsible for writing the bloc’s content proposals. But three officials told POLITICO they were less than impressed by her suggestions because, to them, Haugen’s ideas were not revolutionary. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.

In fact, for all the problems Haugen may have caused Zuckerberg over the past month in the United States, there are those in Europe who see her as too soft on her former employer.

During her testimony in London last month, a British lawmaker repeatedly asked her if she believed Facebook was “evil,” hoping to land a one-two punch against the company. Haugen batted away that line of questioning with a blank refusal. Haugen’s response: Her former colleagues inside Facebook are doing a difficult job with a lack of resources to do it right.

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