A year after bombshell Facebook disclosure, fight for kids’ online safety forges ahead

Efforts to regulate how tech companies collect and use children’s data gained momentum in the U.S. in the past year — a push supporters credit to a former Facebook product manager who took Washington and Silicon Valley by storm a year ago when she released hundreds of internal documents that offered a peek inside how the social media behemoth operates. 

In the year since Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen came forward, Congress, state legislatures and federal agencies have sought to crack down on how tech firms serve kids and teens. 

The documents released by Haugen and her wide-ranging testimony to U.S. and global lawmakers dealt with a range of topics, from the spread of misinformation to human exploitation. But her accusations about how the company, especially through Instagram, negatively impacted teen mental health made the most waves.

“I think the stuff with kids — it just feels so egregious,” Haugen told The Hill. 

“If you went and polled a random sample of people who had kids in the United States, or a child in their life, they would tell you about what social media is doing right now,” she added. 

Haugen, who recently announced her next project, a nonprofit called Beyond the Screen aimed at creating a healthier online environment, acknowledged that the road toward regulation won’t be quick. 

She likened the U.S.’s current position regarding the issue to where the country was a century ago in its regulation of cars. 

“We are standing in 1920 when it comes to social media. Because we never got to look under the hood, because we never got to crash a car, we are working on a very, very thin public knowledge base, public expertise base. And I think part of the reason why people have focused on kids so far, is the kid stuff seems the most obvious,” Haugen said. 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), a prominent voice on kids’ online regulation, said the documents Haugen released “confirmed what parents, pediatricians, and young people already knew: Big Tech knowingly prioritizes profits at the expense of the wellbeing of our children and teens.”

“We can’t continue to allow Big Tech to operate computer code without a code of conduct. In the year following these revelations, families across the country have built unprecedented momentum to enact real solutions to the problems laid bare by a brave whistleblower. As a result, we are closer now than ever before to passing legislation that will provide children and teens the online protections that they need and deserve,” Markey said in a statement. 

As the one-year anniversary of the release of the documents, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, approaches, Markey is leading three Democratic colleagues in a letter urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to use its authority to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) he helped author in 1998. 

“Threats to young people online have reached a crisis point,” the Democrats wrote, according to a copy of the letter exclusively shared with The Hill. 

“The urgency of this issue requires an all-of-the-above approach, and the FTC has a leading role to play,” they added. 

The letter, signed by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) asked the FTC to update COPPA regulation to protect kids on the platforms “they actually use” by defining platforms that are directed to children and “have actual knowledge they are collecting data from children.”

It also calls for the agency to use protections that reflect increases in the use of online platforms for educational purposes and in online advertising to children. 

The Democrats’ letter to the FTC comes ahead of a virtual event the agency is holding in mid-October about protecting kids online, as part of its larger effort announced this summer to review and update data privacy rules. 

Support for the FTC’s review was split along party lines, with Republicans railing against the agency for getting involved in action they say Congress should be taking. But on the underlying issue, there’s support on both sides of the aisle to add regulations for how companies collect children’s data or design products for minors.

Two bills about kids’ online safety regulation advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee this summer with bipartisan support. 

Markey’s COPPA 2.0 bill would update the law by expanding its protections to cover minors aged 12 to 16, who are not covered by the existing law, and banning targeting advertising to children, among other things.

Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn’s (R-Tenn.) Kids Online Safety ACT (KOSA) would address platforms’ design and how they operate for young users, including by creating a duty for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harm to minors. 

As Congress mulls legislative action, states are forging ahead with proposals of their own. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) earlier this month signed a bill into California law putting limits on the type of data tech companies collect on minors and setting the highest default privacy settings for young users. 

New York state Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D) introduced a bill last week that mirrors California’s guidelines, and even goes a step further to give residents power to take on tech giants by including a private right of action that would allow individuals to sue companies for violating the new standards for kids’ safety. 

“We’re kind of treading over a worn path in some ways. Although you always love to be the first and the most novel, we’re not reinventing anything here. We’re really following in a couple other jurisdictions, both in the United States and internationally, that have taken these steps. And so I would hope by this point, we can reach broad consensus as to why this is so important and why the solutions are the answer,” Gounardes told The Hill. 

Earlier this month, after Newsom signed the new law, leading senators on the issue met with Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of children’s media advocacy group Common Sense media, in D.C. to discuss how to move forward with proposals like KOSA, COPPA 2.0 and a comprehensive federal privacy law given the momentum on the state level.

The year since Haugen released the documents has also seen some changes from Facebook itself, now under the parent company name Meta. 

In December, roughly two months after Haugen came forward and as a company executive faced a Senate grilling, Instagram rolled out additional safety features for teens, including an educational hub for parents and guardians. The platform also introduced a feature to suggest teens “Take a Break” if they have been scrolling for a certain amount of time. 

This summer, the company increased its safety features even more by adding Instagram features that lets guardians send invitations to teens to participate in supervision tools including setting specific time limits on the app. 

Meta noted that the rollout of safety features for minors predates Haugen’s disclosure, including the release of anti-bullying features to let users delete comments in bulk in May 2020 and the launch of expert-backed earring disorder resources in February 2021. 

Meta has also pushed back on Haugen’s accusations about the company. Last year, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company was being “mischaracterized” by Haugen’s testimony and comment. 

Haugen said changes from the different sectors are all important components in creating what she calls an “ecosystem of accountability.” 

“It’s not about passing the magical law, there are no silver bullets here,” she said. 

“One of things that has been really exciting for me is we’re starting to see some of those components of the ecosystem of accountability beginning to flex,” she added. 

Haugen said she is optimistic that change is on the horizon, it will just take time. 

“These things don’t take two years, they take 20 years — they take 40 years,” she said. 

“We were supposed to start having conversations about governance in 2000. And it is now 2022. And we’re just catching up, and it’s going to take time. But the important part is that we’re having the conversations now, and we didn’t get a chance to have the conversations in the past,” she said.

Tags Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act COPPA COPPA 2.0 Ed Markey Ed Markey Facebook Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen Frances Haugen FTC Gavin Newsom Instagram Kathy Castor Kids Online Safety Act KOSA Lori Trahan Marsha Blackburn Meta Richard Blumenthal Richard Blumenthal Social media
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