Democrats ask Facebook to abandon 'Instagram for kids' plans

Democrats ask Facebook to abandon 'Instagram for kids' plans
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A group of congressional Democrats ramped up calls for Facebook to abandon a plan to create an Instagram for kids platform, alleging that the company failed to adequately address concerns the lawmakers raised. 

The controversial plan, which has drawn the ire of advocacy groups and bipartisan attorneys general nationwide, was also the target of questioning from senators across the aisle at a Tuesday Senate Commerce Committee hearing on children’s online data privacy and manipulative marketing. 

“I have no trust, none, that Facebook will keep these young users safe. It has failed far too often,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said at the hearing. 

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“Facebook should stop this additional intrusive and potentially dangerous interference in kids' lives and abandon plans for Instagram kids,” he added. 

Blumenthal, along with Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyHuman rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Nearly 140 Democrats urge EPA to 'promptly' allow California to set its own vehicle pollution standards Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-Mass.) and Reps. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Cities a surprise refuge for wildlife Young Republicans see shift in GOP: 'From outright denial to climate caucus' Hillicon Valley: Lina Khan faces major FTC test | Amazon calls for her recusal | Warren taps commodities watchdog to probe Google MORE (D-Fla.) and Lori TrahanLori A. TrahanDemocrats urge online platforms to extend UK child protections to US Ex-Massachusetts House candidate accused of soliciting illegal campaign contributions Democrats introduce bill allowing college athletes to organize MORE (D-Mass.), wrote to Facebook in April pressing the social media giant on how it plans to protect children’s privacy and safety as it plots a new platform for children under 13 years old. 

The lawmakers issued a joint statement Tuesday joining the calls from advocacy groups and attorneys general for the company to drop the plans, with the senators calling Facebook’s response to their questions inadequate. 

“Facebook has a clear record of failing to protect children on its platforms. In its response to our recent letter, the company refused to make meaningful commitments about how it will ensure that its proposed Instagram Kids app does not harm young users’ mental health and threaten their privacy,” they said in the joint statement. 

Markey, who has been outspoken in pushing for an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), during the hearing emphasized the need for swift action to protect kids. 

“Unfortunately, when it comes to putting children ahead of their profits, Big Tech always fails. They forfeited the benefit of the doubt on this issue," Markey said. "It is time for this Congress to pass comprehensive privacy legislation to protect children."

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Last week, Markey introduced a bill with Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidyBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate starts infrastructure debate amid 11th-hour drama Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE (R-La.) to update COPPA by prohibiting internet companies from collecting personal information from anyone ages 13 to 15 without the user’s consent. The Children and Teen’s Online Privacy Protection Act, among other measures, would also establish a Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which would be responsible for addressing the privacy of children and marketing directed at them. 

The experts on the panel — Angela Campbell, a Georgetown Law professor; Serge Egelman, a research director at UC Berkeley; and Beeban Kidron, founder and chair of 5Rights Foundation — also all testified in opposition to Instagram launching a platform for kids. 

“Facebook has not earned our trust to start doing children’s services in this way,” Kidron said. “I think unless you have standards, unless you have agreements about what is a fitting platform for children, then of course they shouldn’t go ahead and do this new platform. They cannot be trusted with children until we set out what that looks like.” 

Republicans on the committee also expressed concerns about Facebook’s policies around children and the potential for the new platform for kids. 

“As time moves forward, children will be at the forefront of technology with each generation being more connected than the last. That’s why it's so important that we get this right we must ensure children aren’t being taken advantage of and molded into something they are not,” Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on Biden's misinformation crackdown spotlights partisan divide on content reform MORE (R-Tenn.) said at the hearing, noting that Tennessee was among the states with an attorney general signing on to the letter calling for Facebook to drop the plans.

Similarly, during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing with Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergDemocrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation Activists protest Facebook's 'failure' on disinformation with body bags outside DC office Budowsky: How Biden can defeat COVID-19 for good MORE and other tech CEOs, Republicans pushed back on the plans for the kids’ Instagram platform.

Republicans in Congress, however, have not been as forthright in calling for the platform to abandon plans completely. 

"As every parent knows, kids are already online. We want to improve this situation by delivering experiences that give parents visibility and control over what their kids are doing," a Facebook spokesperson said in response to the Democrats’ call for the company to nix the new platform. "We will develop these experiences in consultation with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates. We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators."

The company has also committed to not show ads in any Instagram experience it develops for users under 13. 

In addition to Instagram’s plans for a kids platform, senators on the committee took aim at the popular video sharing app TikTok. 

Blumenthal said TikTok representatives were invited to attend the hearing, but declined.

Blumenthal noted that TikTok settled with the FTC over allegations that TikTok, formally known as Musical.ly, violated COPPA. The penalty was $5.7 million, which at the time was the FTC’s largest ever under COPPA.

Advocates have since filed a complaint with the FTC alleging TikTok still fails to follow the law, Blumenthal noted. 

Blackburn also raised concerns that TikTok has been accused of using algorithms to “keep kids scrolling indefinitely.” 

A TikTok spokesperson defended the company's policies regarding safety for young users.

"TikTok is deeply committed to the safety of minors and we continually work to strengthen our safeguards to protect teens on our platform, including through our Family Pairing features, strong default privacy settings, and age-restricted access to features like direct messaging or livestream. We look forward to a continued dialogue around our shared priority of keeping youth safe online with this committee," the spokesperson said in a statement.

--Updated at 3:14 p.m.