House Oversight Democrat presses Facebook for 'failure' to protect users

House Oversight Democrat presses Facebook for 'failure' to protect users
© Stefani Reynolds

Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiHouse Oversight Democrats ask NFL for information from investigation into Washington Football Team FDA authorizes an e-cigarette for first time, citing benefit for smokers Congressional investigators find more cases of baby food with toxic heavy metals MORE (D-Ill.) is pressing Facebook for documents regarding what he calls its "apparent failure" to protect user welfare based on recent reporting that revealed the platform is being used for human trafficking and that top executives had apparent knowledge of Instagram's detrimental effects on teen users' mental health.

Krishnamoorthi, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — US cracks down on tools for foreign hacking DC AG adds Facebook's Zuckerberg to Cambridge Analytica suit Senator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety MORE on Monday requesting documents and information following the series of reports from The Wall Street Journal.

The Democrat’s first request relates to allegations of Facebook’s facilitation of human trafficking on the platform after the Journal reported that the tech giant knowingly allowed trafficking and other illicit content such as organ selling and pornography. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“It would be troubling if an American company attempted to pad its profits through rapid expansion in lower-income countries without instituting the same safety measures it employs here and in other wealthy nations,” Krishnamoorthi wrote. 

Additionally, he is pressuring Facebook to release information and be forthcoming about its research into the impact of its products, primarily Instagram, on young users. 

The Journal reported detailed information from internal Instagram documents about research on how the platform impacts teen users' mental health. The internal research revealed, among other things, that “social media comparison is worse on Instagram,” according to the Journal’s report. 

Pressure for Facebook to be transparent about the research is underscored by the platform’s plans to launch an Instagram for kids under 13. 

“At a time when Facebook needs to do more to protect Instagram’s teen users, it is simply irresponsible to expand the platform to our most vulnerable—children under the age of 13. I urge you to address the harm caused by Instagram and discontinue your plans to create an Instagram for kids,” Krishnamoorthi wrote. 

In response to the Democrat’s letter, a Facebook spokesperson said the company has a “comprehensive strategy” in countries at risk of conflict and violence that rely on global teams with native speakers and partnerships with local experts and third-party fact-checkers “to keep people safe.” 

“We prohibit human exploitation in no uncertain terms. We’ve been combatting human trafficking on our platform for many years and our goal remains to prevent anyone who seeks to exploit others from having a home on our platform,” the spokesperson added in a statement. 

More broadly, the social media giant has pushed back on the Journal’s series of reports in a blog post published Saturday stating the stories “contained deliberate mischaracterizations.” 

Monday’s letter follows a call from a group of Democrats last week for Facebook to abandon its plans for an Instagram for kids. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat executives to testify at Senate hearing on kids' safety Buttigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' MORE (R-Tenn.) also said they would probe Facebook in light of the report about the impact on teens' mental health. 

Advocates are also sounding the alarm for Facebook to rethink its plans and for lawmakers to crack down on regulating the company to mitigate risks posed to young users. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“When your overall business plan is really more about profits and children are an afterthought, those are not the people that I want designing my next product that has lots of high stakes risks about children's development in terms of how they develop their sense of self, their social interactions, and their online presence and their privacy,” said Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Michigan Medical School.

Radesky spoke alongside fellow experts and advocates at a panel Monday hosted by the groups Parents Together and Fairplay. 

Emma Lembke, a college freshman who launched the organization Log Off Movement, which aims to promote the healthy use of social media, echoed the calls for regulation and said her generation has felt the brunt of the impact. 

“It's baked into the DNA of my generation,” Lembke said. “I'm Gen Z. And part of my identity is online. And I think that that's the same for a lot of teens out there.”

Lembke said broadening the dialogue about healthy social media use can be “a step in the right direction” for users to have more agency in their experiences online, but regulation is a crucial part of the puzzle. 

“In order to get to a place where that can really work and allow people to exist in a healthier way more regulation has to be in place to just push tech companies to create and to evolve in a more humane way,” she said.