January 28, 2022

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Instagram Chief Mosseri Defends Meta In Senate, Urges Congress To Pass New Tech Rules

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Instagram head Adam Mosseri offered a full-throated defense of the social media app during Senate testimony on Wednesday afternoon as lawmakers questioned him over the company’s safety measures for young people.

Mosseri pointed to existing and soon-to-be-released tools on Instagram that let users control who interacts with them and ones for parents to limit the content their kids see. On Wednesday, Mosseri said Instagram would give independent reserachers access to data and algorithms but wouldn’t rule out resuming work on Instagram for Kids, a controversial version of Instagram for children that the company has put on pause.

Seeking to turn around the pressure onto Congress, Mosseri called on lawmakers to help Instagram better regulate itself by passing new federal legislation specifying what they expect the app to do.

“We believe there should be an industry body that will determine best practices when it comes to at least three questions: how to verify age, how to design age-appropriate experiences and how to build parent controls,” Mosseri said. “And I believe that companies like ours should have to adhere to these standards to earn some our Section 230 protections,” a reference to the federal legislation offering broad protection to tech companies.

Instagram and its parent company Meta, the recently renamed Facebook Inc., have been under fire for the past several months after former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen released a trove of internal files to journalists and federal regulators. The documents offered an unprecedented view at the problems Meta faces, including concerns that Instagram damages teen mental health.

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Questions about how children fare on Instagram have sparked bipartisan ire and raised the chances of new legislation, a long-dicussed matter that had fallen dormant. “There is bipartisan momentum—both here and in the House [of Representatives]—to tackle these problems we are seeing with Big Tech,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn, the most senior Republican on the Senate subcommittee that heard Mosseri’s testimony. “The time is ripe to pass a national consumer privacy bill, as well as kids-specific legislation to keep minors safe online.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the other subcommittee co-chair, offered harsh words for Instagram, too. “Something is terribly wrong,” he said. “And what stuns me is the lack of action.”

The subcommittee led by Blumenthal and Blackburn has steered the renewed interest in Washington, D.C, over possible tech regulation, and it has previously listened to testimony from Haugen, Meta Head of Safety Antigone Davis and executives from YouTube, Snap and TikTok over the past several months. When Davis spoke to Congress, Blumenthal’s office created a fake Instagram account for a teen girl and said the account was quickly shown content that promoted eating disorders. Blumenthal’s office again set up another account this week and found similar content, a sign that Meta isn’t taking the increased attention from Congress seriously, the senator said.

During Mosseri’s remarks on Wednesday, he said Instagram has removed over 850,000 acounts this year that appeared to belong to underage users. Moreover, Mosseri said, Instagram has tried to push teenage users toward private accounts—showing them a notification badge that highlights the greater safety a private account offers over a public one—and limited the extent of targeted advertising.

Mosseri also directly criticized the conclusions drawn from the whistle-blower documents obtained by Haugen, continuing a line of attack on Meta’s own researchers that the company has previously employed. The documents contained incomplete research relying on small sample sizes, Mosseri told Congress, and shouldn’t be taken as seriously as lawmakers and many journalists have.

Instagram this week debuted a feature to prompt users to take a break from the app and heralded new parental control features coming in March. The new feature was released early Tuesday morning, odd timing that drew a rebuke from Blackburn.

“At 3 a.m., which is midnight in Silicon Valley, you released a list of product updates you said would raise the standard for protecting teens and supporting parents online. I’m not sure what hours you keep out there in California, but, where I’m from, that’s when you drop news that you don’t want people to see,” Blackburn said.

In an ironic moment Wednesday, Mosseri highlighted a core problem for Meta: It is losing ground to competitors such as Snap and TikTok. He did so to suggest that the problem of teen safety is bigger than just Meta—making it impossible for the company to tackle alone without guidance from the government. During his testimony, Mosseri cited a newly released Forrester survey that showed 63% of U.S. teens spend time weekly on TikTok compared to 57% of teens who said they were on Instagram, a four-percentage-point drop for Instagram in a year.  

“With teens using multiple platforms, it is critical that we address youth online safety as an industry challenge and develop industry-wide solutions,” Mosseri said.

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