Public Citizen News / July-August 2021
By David Rosen
This article appeared in the July/August 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
It was one of the first direct actions Public Citizen organized since the start of the pandemic.
Half a dozen public interest organizations led by Public Citizen gathered in front of Facebook’s federal lobbying headquarters in Washington, D.C., on May 25, to demand accountability for the company’s litany of abuses, failures, and betrayals.
The groups put together a list of more than 70 grievances against Facebook. These included improper political interference, privacy violations, egregious data security lapses, clear monopolization of markets, facilitating discrimination, spreading hate and misinformation, a pattern of global lawlessness, as well as harms to users, children, advertisers, and even the company’s own employees.
The complaints were displayed on signage hung on the exterior walls of Facebook’s lobbying office.
Accountable Tech, Action Center on Race and the Economy, American Economic Liberties Project, Data for Black Lives, Decode Democracy, Fight for the Future, Kairos Fellows, Liberation in a Generation, MediaJustice, and Public Citizen signed the document.
“Facebook’s ongoing operations, let alone expansionist designs, are incompatible with the functioning of a democratic society,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, who spoke at the protest.
“The company has too much political power, too much surveillance capacity, too little regard for its users, too little respect for communities of color and oppressed groups around the world, and far, far too little self-restraint. It’s time – past time – for Facebook to be broken up, and for the broken-up pieces and the industry to be subjected to meaningful regulation that forces Big Tech companies to find a new business model that does not rely on intrusive surveillance of users.”
About a dozen reporters and several local and national news cameras attended the protest, located across the street from the Capitol One Arena, where D.C.’s basketball team, the Washington Wizards, shoot hoops. Accordingly, it is one of the most widely visited intersections in the city (at least by locals), yet few would suspect that this was the epicenter of an empire of influence that spans the globe, since Facebook’s lobbying office is unmarked.
Facebook is now the biggest corporate lobbying spender in the U.S., according to a recent report from Public Citizen. In 2020, the company set up a dark money group “American Edge” to influence lawmakers. And shockingly, the Internal Revenue Service contends the tech giant currently owes the U.S. Treasury more than $9 billion in unpaid taxes.
Participating groups called for the immediate breakup of Facebook; for the company to pay its fair share and all taxes it owes; and for new legislation, as well as tougher regulation and enforcement, to end the dozens of abuses the groups listed.
“Hardly a day goes by when Facebook doesn’t make headline news for deeply problematic behavior – from spying on kids, to facilitating discrimination, to playing a ‘determining role’ in the Rohingya genocide,” added Rishi Bharwani, director of partnerships and policy at Accountable Tech, who spoke at the protest.
“For too long, money and influence have allowed Facebook to inflict immeasurable harm without consequence, but we know that the power of the people is greater than the people in power.”