Whistleblowers. Review of legal regulations from around the world - USA
The United States of America has been long known as the world's foremost economic power, having a vast cultural and political influence across the whole world. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the country introduced a resolution that was enacted as early as 1778, that can be considered the world’s first whistleblower law.
Nowadays, the U.S. has numerous federal and state laws that provide protection for whistleblowers who report misconduct, corruption, safety issues or other wrongdoing that they witness in both the public and private sectors. The laws governing the protection from retaliation of both the private sector and federal employees and applicants who blow the whistle on misconduct are The Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), the False Claims Act, the Sarbanes–Oxley Act and the National Defense Authorization Act. These laws aim to enable whistleblowing and encourage disclosures that serve the public interest. Different laws apply depending on the sector, type of employer and nature of the disclosures made by the whistleblower.
Whistleblowers are protected from demotion, harassment, wage cuts or termination in retaliation for lawful disclosures. Disclosures are usually first made internally to the organisation, but can also be made to lawmakers, law enforcement or media outlets depending on the protocols set out in each law. Federal laws generally require disclosures to be made to designated authorities like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) or federal inspectors general. Some laws allow whistleblowers to directly file lawsuits against their employers in federal courts.
To safely and legally blow the whistle, employees can report internally through company protocols or to regulatory bodies like the SEC for securities law violations. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel accepts disclosures from federal employees. Nonprofits like the Government Accountability Project offer whistleblower support and legal assistance.
The infamous case from 2010 of the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden is controversial at best. He leaked classified information about mass surveillance programs run by the NSA and Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance. This sparked a worldwide debate about government surveillance versus privacy rights. The U.S. filed espionage charges against him but many regard Snowden as a whistleblower who exposed controversial government activities. Snowden, whose passport had been revoked by the U.S., flew to Moscow where in 2022 was awarded citizenship. To this day, he does not regret his decision to blow the whistle, as he expressed his concern “not only about dangers posed by governments and Big Tech, but also commercially available video surveillance cameras, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and intrusive spyware such as Pegasus used against dissidents and journalists.”
More recently, in 2021, Frances Haugen leaked internal research by Facebook to the Wall Street Journal, revealing its algorithms amplified misinformation and harmed teen mental health. This catalyzed increased scrutiny of Facebook’s practices and Haugen’s testimony before Congress. She said she decided to whistleblow because she was concerned about the lives of people, especially in the global south, who were being endangered by Facebook’s prioritisation of profits over people.
The U.S. also has a practice of rewarding whistleblowers. The rewards are paid out of an investor protection Fund established by Congress, funded solely by monetary sanctions paid to the SEC by securities law violators. May 5th, 2023. The SEC has awarded its largest-ever award of nearly $279 million to a whistleblower whose information and assistance contributed to successful SEC enforcement actions.
While American laws prohibit retaliation, critics argue more is needed to investigate retaliation claims and punish violators. Continued advocacy around whistleblower rights and strengthening state and federal laws are important to protect and encourage whistleblowing for the public good. Robust whistleblower protections uphold transparency, integrity and accountability across both public and private institutions.