The billionaire and whistleblower who help Facebook ‘deep throat’ | Economy

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Pierre Omidyar, during an annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in 2010.
Pierre Omidyar, during an annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in 2010.Ramin Talaie (Getty)

37-year-old engineer Frances Haugen, who has led Facebook to the worst crisis in its 17-year history with the leak of thousands of documents, is not alone in her fight to spread the questionable practices of the company (now renamed Meta) and to demand legislation that puts an end to the social network. The former employee is receiving financial support from one of the leading figures in the digital world, Pierre Omidyar, who founded eBay in 1995 and is one of the biggest critics of the sector, a sign of the enthusiasm that his revelations have generated among the dissatisfied in Silicon Valley with the concentration of power of the technological ones. This assistance joins that of the Whistleblower Aid organization, which provides legal aid to whistleblowers and is led by John Tye (an attorney and former whistleblower), and that of a California communications firm led by a former Barack Obama adviser.

Few informants have a support of these characteristics to face and face a great company. “Our support will help cover all travel, logistics and communication expenses for Frances’ team,” says a spokesperson for Luminate, the non-profit organization founded by Omidyar and his wife, Pam, in 2004 and which has since allocated some 418 million dollars (370 million euros) to combat, among other things, polarization and misinformation. “We decided to support it because it is clear that the evidence it presented and the disclosures are unprecedented, and that they are disseminated is a matter of general interest that people should know and discuss”, explains by email Ben Scott, one of the leaders of the group .

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The financial backing of the founder of the e-commerce website eBay, whose personal fortune is estimated at about $ 21.4 billion (18.9 billion euros), has served to pay for Haugen’s recent European tour to speak before the European Parliament on 8 September. November and attend an event in Portugal, the week before, with the aim of explaining their findings to MEPs on Facebook and promoting a change in regulation around big technology.

Haugen assures, providing thousands of documents as evidence, that Facebook puts its benefit before the general interest. “The papers not only show that their products can be harmful to people, but also that the company is aware of it, but does nothing, and all this makes us think about how to act efficiently to protect users, adolescent health, the integrity of an election, and much more, ”says Scott. Facebook has claimed that the information provided by Haugen is taken out of context and denies that it is acting in bad faith.

Frances Haugen, during her speech in the European Parliament, on November 8.
Frances Haugen, during her speech in the European Parliament, on November 8.DPA via Europa Press (Europa Press)

The big leak actually started nearly a year ago, when Haugen contacted Jeff Horowitz, a technology journalist from The Wall Street Journal, to bring you the scoop. Months later, as the financial newspaper investigated the material, the data engineer began to be advised and protected by one of the organizations that help whistleblowers, Whistleblower Aid, founded in 2017 by lawyers Mark Zaid and John Napier Tye . The former is known, among other cases, for representing former Harrods owner Mohammed al Fayed in a controversial 2001 case in which the CIA was (unsuccessfully) accused of policing Princess Diana before her death in Paris in 1997. Tye, for his part, is a former employee of the US State Department who denounced certain electronic surveillance practices of the US Government in 2014.

For contacts with the media, and to organize a new round of leaks with another twenty newspapers that were published a month after those of the Journal, Haugen counted, according to what has been published in the American press, with the public relations giant Bryson Gillette, whose chief adviser is Bill Burton, a former adviser to former President Barack Obama.

“One of the services we provide is to make sure our clients are able to speak efficiently to the media, or politicians,” Zaid explained about the role of Whistleblower Aid in a recent interview with the Gizmodo website. The organization encourages whistleblowers to seek “effective legal representation first, to minimize possible reprisals,” especially when it comes to issues that affect national security. An example of how revealing secrets can mortgage the rest of a life is that of John Snowden, the US National Security Agency analyst who lives in hiding in Russia after his revelations about two government mass surveillance programs in the United States.

The whistleblowers Tech companies risk less than those who expose the big official secrets, but they face possible legal retaliation from companies or damage their future careers. Sophie Zhang, who worked for Facebook for nearly three years before being fired in the fall of 2020 for “poor performance,” has no regrets for exposing company practices that she views as unethical. “I wouldn’t say I’m happy about it either, because reporting is never easy,” Zhang, 30, explains by phone from her home in California.

After leaving the company (and rejecting a compensation of $ 64,000 to avoid having to sign a confidentiality agreement), Zhang has been telling, on the internet, the media and in the North American Congress, that the governments of countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan they used fake Facebook accounts to influence public opinion. In India and Ecuador, the data scientist detected coordinated actions to manipulate people. He communicated this to Facebook, but assures that his information was not taken seriously. Zhang’s experience led him to conclude: “My hands are stained with blood.” The company has not denied his statements, but has downplayed their importance.

Since then, Zhang has focused on giving interviews and disseminating her findings: “I don’t have a job at the moment, although in the future I hope to get back to a normal life. I am very introverted and I do not like to attract attention. I do not charge for what I do to disseminate the practices of my old company. I have savings, because even though I was a low-level employee, in Silicon Valley the salaries are exorbitant and I earned $ 200,000 a year ”. His own lawyer has been paid, although he recently said that he had been offered help, without specifying it. “Being a whistleblower is not easy, there are not many people who take the step. Frances has proven to be very brave, ”he says.

Pulling the blanket can change the life of the person who does it. Haugen now lives in Puerto Rico and, as he has told The New York Times, has its own financial resources. As he explained to this newspaper: “For now I’m fine, because I bought cryptocurrencies at the right time.”

Another important complainant of the big tech is Ifeoma Ozoma, who in 2020 resigned on Pinterest after denouncing racial and gender discrimination. She has been one of the promoters of a new legislation that has just been passed in California (Silence No More Act) to limit the cases in which companies can require a confidentiality agreement to prevent workers from reporting practices they consider discriminatory.

In the most economical field, the US stock market supervisor (SEC) has a complaints channel and rewards are offered according to the money recovered. In Spain, there is also a similar service (although without economic consideration). Meanwhile, a new directive in the EU seeks to give greater protection to whistleblowers usually.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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