Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, asks questions during a hearing of the Senate Justice Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and Law at the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC on April 27, 2021.
Tasos Katopodis | Swimming pool | Reuters
WASHINGTON – Facebook’s testimony to members of the U.S. Senate on Thursday led to an overwhelming conclusion by lawmakers in attendance: Instagram has no right to develop an app for children.
Using Facebook’s own internal research from documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal and some eventually released by the company, Senators escalated their pre-existing criticism of the company and expressed concern about its impact on young people.
In its series, the Journal described Facebook’s plan to create an Instagram service for children under the age of 13. One of the stories described a 2019 internal company slide that said Instagram made body problems worse for one in three teenage girls.
While Facebook has billed the Instagram plan as its flagship product as an alternative and safer app for kids, lawmakers Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global security chief, repeatedly expressed deep skepticism during her testimony on Thursday.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, told reporters prior to the hearing that while Facebook said it would pause its plans, “they should commit to a permanent end.”
“When we’re dealing with the real world of Facebook, where security is more illusory than real, there shouldn’t be Instagram for kids, period,” said Blumenthal, whose committee held the hearing. “If they were really committed to child safety, if there was real evidence, I might think differently about it. But Instagram for kids is just more of that.”
Facebook posted an annotated version of part of the Instagram slide deck the night before the hearing. The company wrote that its earlier formulation of the research number “could sensationally depict the negative impact on the graphics” and even “ignore potentially positive interpretations – for example, more than half of respondents say Instagram improves their sense of loneliness.”
Davis tried to contextualize and reshape the research in the journal’s coverage, but senators reminded her that the data came from Facebook’s own studies. They also presented her with quotes from other internal documents that they said were provided by the whistleblower.
Davis said the research was “not a bomb”. The legislature objected vehemently.
“For parents who lose their children, it’s a bomb in their life,” said Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas. He cited a statistic from the journal’s internal study that showed that 6% of American users surveyed of teenagers who reported thoughts of suicide attributed those feelings to Instagram.
“This research is a bomb,” said Blumenthal during the hearing. “It’s strong, gripping, and compelling evidence that Facebook understands the harmful effects of its website on children and has hushed up those facts and insights.”
seeing is believing
Facebook said after the journal’s series that its coverage selected dates and lacked critical context. In response to a request for comment on Thursday, the company referred to two previous blog posts on the journal’s report.
Blumenthal said his staff conducted their own experiment, created a profile identified as a 13-year-old girl, and followed reports related to “extreme diets and eating disorders.” He said that “within a day, his recommendations were filled solely with reports promoting self-harm and eating disorders.”
Outside the hearing room, Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Told reporters that she was “disappointed” with Davis’ responses.
“Anyone who’s studied Facebook and really looked at the profit model, how the company started, how it made money … it’s all based on using data from its users,” said Klobuchar. “It’s all a winning model, it’s a game. A raffle.”
Klobuchar said she wanted to see Facebook’s written responses on how much it ranks with younger users compared to other demographics.
Blumenthal told CNBC in an interview later Thursday that the whistleblower’s revelations were a reminder of what had happened to the tobacco industry decades earlier.
“The analogy to Big Tobacco is very telling because when we sued Big Tobacco, we believed they knew their products were harmful,” said Blumenthal, adding to his comment in his opening speech. “And their own files showed that they knew. In fact, they had done studies that showed it. So the analogy is very accurate. “
He added that both technology and tobacco have “built addiction into their business model” and sought to attract children to the products in order to “replenish their customer base.”
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Made the same comparison.
“Instagram is the first cigarette in childhood designed to be early addictive to teenagers, exploiting peer pressure from popularity, and ultimately endangering their health,” said Markey.
A couple of friends in Washington
Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., A vocal opponent of Instagram for children and advocate of child safety online, told CNBC in an interview that recent revelations made it even more difficult to trust Facebook’s promises.
“How the hell can we trust them to design an Instagram for kids when they knowingly haven’t repaired their main platform since we know what we know today about how damaging it was for young people?” said Trahan. “So Instagram for kids was a bad idea before last week. Now it’s an even worse idea.”
Every lawmaker polling Facebook on Thursday expressed concern and urgency about the documents they saw. It’s a rare look at what bipartisanism looks like in Washington, DC today
“There is no partisan difference,” Blumenthal told reporters outside the hearing room. “And I would like to add that Facebook has no understanding that it is not acting responsibly.”
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