Technology

Children’s app could still start

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Instagram boss Adam Mosseri testifies on December 8, 2021 at a US Senate hearing in Washington DC.

Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testified before Congress for the first time on Wednesday, refusing to commit to permanently ending paused plans to create a version of the platform for children under the age of 13.

Mosseri told the Senate Consumer Protection Trade Subcommittee that he was the ultimate decision maker on the matter and that he would work to ensure that no child between the ages of 10 and 12 has access to any version of the platform without parental consent.

He said the original goal of developing a child-centric product was to solve the problem of children under 13 trying to use Instagram and the difficulty for platforms across the industry to verify their age.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Chairman of the subcommittee, told reporters after the hearing that he was “deeply disappointed” with the lack of engagement.

The hearing, which was part of a series of such testimony regarding online child protection, again highlighted the widespread frustration among lawmakers on the panel over what they consider to be the slow response of the technology platform to the adverse effects of their product. The legislature was prepared with its own experiments on the platform to examine how it recommends content to young users. And while they seemed to appreciate some of the steps the company recently announced to give parents more control over what young users were doing on the platform, they wondered what was preventing those steps from being implemented already.

Mosseri said in his opening remarks that he is proud of the platform’s efforts to protect young people, even after leaked internal documents enraged lawmakers for saying the company is inactive.

In his prepared comments, he said that it is “not just a company to protect young people on the Internet” and stressed the need for “industry-wide solutions and standards”. He said the company, which is owned by Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has been calling for “updated regulations” for years and has proposed an industry body setting best practices for online age verification and age-appropriate design issues .

In his opening speech, Blumenthal made it clear that from his point of view, industry solutions alone are not enough.

“Self-control depends on trust,” said Blumenthal. “The trust is gone.”

Mosseri’s testimony comes after former Facebook employee Frances Haugen released a ton of in-house research papers to journalists, Congress, and the SEC. Among the documents was a presentation, first published by the Wall Street Journal, which found that among teenagers who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of UK users surveyed and 6% of American users attributed the problem to Instagram.

Mosseri questioned the accuracy of the figure, which was contained in the company’s own records, in his testimony on Wednesday. In his written observations, he said the reporting of internal research was “mischaracterized”.

That report sparked a number of bipartisan hearings, including with Haugen and a separate hearing with a Facebook manager. However, Mosseri is the company’s most senior official to testify on the matter after the news.

Senators urged Mosseri to get more data behind Instagram’s internal reports referenced in Haugen’s leaked documents.

He said he will do everything in his power to release data behind internal research referenced in the files, aside from privacy issues or the possibility of it being deleted due to data retention policies. He also said he would give third-party researchers “meaningful access” to data so they could conduct their own studies and experiments.

He also said Instagram’s Community Standards Enforcement Report would be independently reviewed by Ernst & Young for the next quarter.

The latest child safety announcement from Instagram

Just a day before the Wednesday hearing, Instagram released several early morning product updates designed to improve teenagers’ safety on the platform. Changes included prompts for teens to take a break after scrolling the app for a while and allowing parents to see and limit the time teens spend on the platform.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., The senior subcommittee member, was skeptical about the timing of the announcement.

“At 3:00 a.m. – midnight in Silicon Valley – you posted a list of product updates that you said would ‘raise the standard for teen protection and online parenting support'”, said Blackburn in her written observations. “I’m not sure how many hours you spend out there in California, but where I’m from is when you leave messages that you don’t want people to see.”

Regardless, said Blackburn, the measures are “too little, too late”.

Mosseri later alluded to additional measures Instagram is considering to protect user safety, including an option for a chronological feed to be released in the first quarter of next year. In 2018, Twitter also reintroduced the ability for users to order their feeds in reverse chronological order.

Blackburn stated at a press conference after the hearing that “these are all concepts that lie in the future.

While Mosseri formally appeared before Congress for the first time on Wednesday, he is one of many Meta staff members who have testified over the years. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has testified several times on topics ranging from the company’s previous cryptocurrency ambitions to privacy policies in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Citing numerous testimonies from meta-officials over the years, Blackburn said she was “frustrated” that “you keep saying things that sound like you are listening to us and agreeing – but then nothing changes. “So their written comments.

Legislative experiments

Two senators said at the hearing on Wednesday that they had recently conducted their own experiments on Instagram’s recommendations to young users.

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he created an account for a fictional 13-year-old girl who initially looked at hairstyle content, but soon Instagram recommended the “girl” follow a female celebrity. After that, Instagram started recommending posts about weight loss and plastic surgery, he said.

“It was widespread,” he added. Mosseri said he was unfamiliar with the specific case.

Blumenthal and Blackburn previously ran their own similar experiments that they shared in previous hearings.

Blumenthal on Wednesday also described a recent test his team did with an account set up with all the protection options available that looked for “slit wrists.”

“I cannot describe the results in this hearing, they are so illustrative,” he said. “That was in the last couple of days.”

At one point in the hearing, Blackburn gave Mosseri an opportunity to reach out to parents who had lost their children to suicide. Pointing to his own role as the father of three, he said he could not even begin to imagine the experience and, as the head of Instagram, it was his responsibility to “do everything possible to keep people safe”.

“If someone harms themselves or has a negative experience on our platform, I take it incredibly seriously,” he said.

But Blackburn wasn’t impressed with his response, and said she wished she could have been more “empathetic”.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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WATCH: Numerous executives are leaving Meta; Instagram boss Adam Mosseri testifies on Capitol Hill

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