Instagram, other social media apps need tighter regulation, senators say

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WASHINGTON — Instagram’s top executive clashed with senators on Wednesday over the photo-sharing app’s impact on young users, in a controversial hearing in which lawmakers from both parties have called for tighter government oversight of social media apps.

Adam Mosseri, Head of Meta Platforms Inc.

Instagram, claimed that many young users find that Instagram improves their lives.

“I am proud of our work to help keep young people safe, to support struggling young people, and to give parents tools to help their teens develop healthy and safe online habits,” Mosseri said, whose parent company Meta also owns Facebook.

Members of the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee painted a much different picture, citing internal documents leaked by the Wall Street Journal showing Instagram is making body image problems worse for a substantial minority of teenage girls and being blamed by adolescent girls for increased anxiety and depression. .

Several senators pointed to Instagram accounts their own offices had set up that repeatedly appeared to push teenage girls towards harmful content.

“I’m just a little frustrated,” said Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tennessee), the top Republican on the panel. Parents “keep hearing from you that change is coming, that things are going to be different…. Guess what? Nothing changes. Nothing.”

Mr Mosseri took issue with some lawmakers’ claim that the company’s social media products are addictive, saying he doesn’t think research shows it. “We have the same goal. We all want teens to be safe online, ”he said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) Replied, “I think we are in diametrically opposed goals, the goals of parents and the goals of your business.”

“Our children are not cash cows,” she added. “When you look at what your business has done, it’s to try to involve more and more of it. “

The difficult exchanges took place as lawmakers worked on legislation creating new legal obligations for social media companies to prevent harm online and open the inner workings of their apps to outside scrutiny.

Mr Mosseri made his own suggestion for regulation, calling for the creation of a new industry panel to set safety standards for social media platforms to protect young children from harm on the internet.

Among its responsibilities, the panel would set standards for all companies in critical areas such as how to verify the age of users, Mosseri said. It would also establish best practices on how to design age-appropriate experiences and how to add more parental controls.

He said the body’s decisions should be scrutinized by policymakers and there should be enforcement against companies that fail to meet standards. Businesses failing to meet the standards would lose the sweeping legal protections federal law currently offers online platforms, he said.

“The reality is that personal safety is not just about any one company,” Mosseri said.

Senators have said tougher measures are needed. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), Who chairs the consumer protection subcommittee, said he was working with Ms Blackburn on new legislation to demand more transparency in social media algorithms and datasets.

“The days of self-control and self-regulation are over,” said Blumenthal.

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Both Mr. Blumenthal and Senator Ted Cruz (R., TX) urged Mr. Mosseri to publish the internal research cited by the Journal in its Facebook Files series. Mr Mosseri said he could not commit to doing so due to privacy concerns that may need to be resolved, and said some of the information may have been destroyed under the data retention policy of the company.

Several Senators said they tested Instagram’s content recommendation algorithms and were appalled at what they saw.

Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) said his office created a fake account for a 13-year-old girl and followed the first user suggested by the app, a celebrity.

“It changed and it got dark fast,” Mr. Lee said, posting content “that promotes body dysmorphia, the sexualization of women”.

“What touches me is what has changed is to follow this female celebrity account,” which Instagram itself recommended, he said.

Mr Mosseri said specific examples do not necessarily reflect general user experiences. “We absolutely don’t want any content promoting eating disorders on our platform. We are doing our best to remove it.

Ahead of the hearing, Instagram said it would be implementing new tools to protect teens who use the app. They include prompts to suggest users take breaks, controls for parents to reduce their children’s use, limits on tagging or mentioning teenage users, and the ability for users to bulk delete their children. own photos, videos and other content.

These measures, however, might not go far enough to satisfy lawmakers. Ms Blackburn said the new Instagram tools were an attempt to distract from their mistakes.

“This is a case of too little too late as there is now a bipartisan momentum here and in the House to tackle the issues we see in Big Tech,” Ms Blackburn said at the hearing. .

Some lawmakers, including Ms Blackburn, want Instagram to drop its plans to roll out a kid-friendly version, similar to YouTube Kids and other products. Mr Mosseri announced a hiatus on those plans in September, but said he still believes in the idea as a way to protect tweens who may be able to use the app today despite his required minimum age of 13.

He maintained this position on Wednesday. “What I can commit to today is that no child between 10 and 12 years old, if we ever manage to create Instagram for 10 to 12 year olds, will have access to it without the explicit consent of his parents, ”he said. .

So far, legislative discussions by senators have not resulted in proposals with broad consensus.

Mr Blumenthal said Meta and other companies should be required to open their platforms to independent researchers who can study how content recommendation algorithms work.

Mr Mosseri said he believes researchers should have “regular access to meaningful data on social media use across the industry.”

Senator John Thune (R., SD) said users should know more about how these algorithms work and be able to turn them off. “Do you think consumers should be able to use Instagram without being manipulated by algorithms designed to keep them hooked? ” He asked.

“I think it’s important that people have control over their experience,” Mosseri replied. He said the company hopes to release an Instagram feature next year that displays content chronologically.

Wednesday’s consumer protection subcommittee hearing is the latest in a series that began in September after the Journal released the Facebook files.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee turned whistleblower, appeared before the panel on October 5. The company has challenged its characterization of its culture and decision-making, saying it works hard to keep consumers safe and that many users benefit from its apps.

The panel also interviewed executives from TikTok from ByteDance Ltd., Snapchat from Snap Inc. and YouTube from Alphabet Inc. about child safety online.

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected] and John D. McKinnon at [email protected]

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