Facebook hears us (it’s just not listening)

Dozens of attorneys general asked CEO Mark Zuckerberg to scrap the company’s plans for Instagram Kids. But Facebook responds to threats to its business model — not appeals to a nonexistent moral code.

Attorneys general from 44 states and jurisdictions sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg yesterday urging him to abandon the company’s plans to launch a version of Instagram for children under the age of 13. “Without a doubt, this is a dangerous idea that risks the safety of our children and puts them directly in harm’s way,” Letitia James, New York’s attorney general said in a statement. “There are way too many concerns to let Facebook move forward with this ill-conceived idea, which is why we are calling on the company to abandon its launch of Instagram Kids.”

Facebook’s plans for a kid-friendly spinoff of the app it purchased in 2012 were originally reported by Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed News, who obtained an internal Instagram post announcing the concept. At the time I wrote:

“Instagram Kids is a consequence of Facebook’s growth-at-all-costs biz model. It has over three billion global users across its family of apps. But to extend its scale, it's looking to transform kids into lifelong FB users and position its apps as family-friendly connection tools instead of the advertising products they are. It’s also another example of how tech companies conflate social apps with the social internet. What tech companies hope you ignore is that it’s totally possible for parents to create well-adjusted digital-savvy youngsters without training them to think the only — or best — spaces for connection, discovery or expression are on multibillion-dollar marketing platforms.”

And last month, an international coalition of 35 children’s and consumer groups called on Zuckerberg to scrap IG Kids in a separate letter due to the flagship app’s lag in protecting users from sexual predators and bullying. The letter also argues that 10- to 12-year-olds with Instagram accounts would be unlikely to switch to a “babyish version” of the app and that Instagram Kids could hook younger users into habitual scrolling and image shame. “Children should not become guinea pigs for tech companies,” Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel on global policy at Common Sense, said to The Supercreator at the time. “Just because you can make a product for a younger audience doesn’t mean you should.”

In their letter, the AGs point to research that “increasingly demonstrates that social media can be harmful to the physical, emotional and mental well-being of children” and call out Zuckerberg for contradicting the data in a Congressional hearing in March. “I think helping people stay connected with friends and learn about different content online is broadly positive,” the 36-year-old said. “I think something like this could be quite helpful for a lot of people.” The letter also argues that children may not fully appreciate what content is appropriate for them to share with others — and the permanence of digital content — due to their underdeveloped understanding of privacy. 

Then there’s what the AGs characterize as Facebook’s “record of failing to protect the safety and privacy of children on its platform, despite claims that its products have strict privacy controls” before pointing to reports from 2019 that showed Facebook’s Messenger Kids app, intended for kids between the ages of six and 12, contained a significant design flaw that allowed children to circumvent restrictions on online interactions and join group chats with strangers that were not previously approved by the children’s parents. “It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account,” the letter concluded. “In short, an Instagram platform for young children is harmful for myriad reasons. The attorneys general urge Facebook to abandon its plans to launch this new platform.”

In a statement to Issie Lapowsky at Protocol, a Facebook spokesperson said that “any experience we develop must prioritize their safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it. We also look forward to working with legislators and regulators, including the nation's attorneys general.” Andy Stone, another Facebook spokesperson added: “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.”

Facebook hears the critics, but it’s not listening. And why should it? It’s against the company’s interests to kill the product. Facebook says IG Kids won’t serve ads, but the app isn’t about turning a short-term profit; it’s about forming long-term habits among a generation that will be critical to Facebook’s sustainability. And while it’s no small feat that an alliance of attorneys general from across the ideological spectrum came together for a common cause, Facebook responds to threats to its business model — not appeals to a moral code we have little evidence of its existence in the first place.

For proof, look no further than the company’s current beef with Apple. The two tech giants are at odds due to a new privacy feature included in Apple’s latest software update that now requires developers to obtain permission to track users across apps and websites. The move will restrict the flow of data Facebook gets from apps to help advertisers efficiently target their messages and complicate how businesses measure the return they get for the ads they run on Facebook. In the company’s Q1 earnings release, Facebook CFO Dave Wehner wrote: “We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes.” 

In response to the update, Facebook launched a series of pop-up messages within its iOS app explaining to users that the information it collects from other apps and websites helps “keep Facebook free of charge.” But early data reported by Rachel Kraus at Mashable from Verizon-owned Flurry Analytics indicates just four percent of iPhone users have opted into app tracking based on metrics from 2.5 million devices. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the Flurry Analytics report and a request to confirm if the external data aligned with the company’s internal numbers. “I would note that it’s still very early days in terms of iOS 14.5 rollout — lots of folks haven’t updated their phones yet,” the spokesperson said, before urging readers to “take early studies like these with a grain of salt.” The spokesperson also declined to comment on future plans to nudge users towards enabling app-tracking beyond the pop-up message Facebook has been using so far.

But Apple is no angel either. And I’m unsold on the idea of Facebook self-regulating itself, as I wrote in last week’s Ask Michael. It’s important to remember that we find ourselves here because our elected officials have chronically misunderstood the scope of the problem that social apps from unchecked tech giants present and resorted to hearings that are designed to elicit partisan soundbites over substantive solutions. And consumers and creators of all ages have suffered, while corporate executives and shareholders have feasted on the spoils. But that doesn’t mean it’s too late to chart a new course.