Lawmakers Send Letter Concerning Safety of Proposed Instagram for Children

On Monday, Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), along with Reps. Kathy Castor, (D-Fla.), and Lori Trahan, (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg concerning Facebook’s recent announcement that it is considering plans to develop a version of Instagram for users under 13 years old.

The lawmakers stated their concerns by citing Facebook’s previous failures to protect children on Facebook’s Messenger Kids app, as well as arguing that the use of social media platforms such as Instagram by young people can be harmful to their mental health and well-being. In particular, the lawmakers pointed to a 2019 report that showed that Facebook’s Messenger Kids app “contained a significant design flaw that allowed children to circumvent restrictions on online interaction. Specifically, Facebook allowed children using Messenger Kids to enter group chats with individuals who were not previously approved by the young users’ parents.” The lawmakers contended that “this episode illustrated the privacy threats to children online and evidenced Facebook’s inability to protect the kids the company actively invited onto this platform.”

The members of Congress also cited research showing the use of social media correlating with an “‘increase in mental distress, self-injurious behavior and suicidality among youth.’ ” The lawmakers asserted that if Facebook wants to decrease the number of users under the age of 13 on its existing Instagram, “it should invest in efforts to do that directly,” not by “pushing kids to sign up for a new platform that may itself pose threats to young users’ privacy and wellbeing.”

“Children are a uniquely vulnerable population online, and images of kids are highly sensitive data,” the letter stated. “Facebook has an obligation to ensure that any new platforms or projects targeting children put those users’ welfare first, and we are skeptical that Facebook is prepared to fulfil this obligation.”

The lawmakers prepared a series of prompts, including:

·     “Please describe in detail the model for a version of Instagram intended for children that Facebook is exploring.”

·     “In what ways will the community guidelines and restrictions on certain types of content differ between the main Instagram platform and the version you are planning?”

·     “Does Instagram use machine learning or other similar tools to identify users on the main platform that are likely children?”

·     “Will you commit that any platforms that Facebook launches for children, including a version of Instagram that is marketed for children, will never sell or share any user data with third parties for commercial purposes? If not, why not?”

In total, the letter proposed 14 questions for Zuckerberg. The lawmakers added that they would advise Facebook to stop these plans if it fails to provide adequate response or fails to demonstrate that the new version of Instagram for children will be safe.

The letter comes after Instagram’s March blog post about making the platform safe for young users.