Members of the Senate Commerce Committee earned a few token concessions from Instagram chief Adam Mosseri in a hearing Wednesday.
Mosseri testified before the Senate panel in a hearing titled “Protecting Kids Online: Instagram and Reforms for Young Users” that focused on potential reforms designed to make social media platforms, including Instagram, safer for children. The hearing is the latest in an initiative led by Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal examining the impact of social media and technology on children and teen users.
Senators succeeded in pressuring Mosseri to commit to increasing algorithmic transparency and providing “meaningful access to data so that third party researchers can design their own studies,” as well as back several legislative proposals including mandated changes to the platform’s design. However, it’s unclear exactly what that “meaningful access” will entail, and whether Mosseri’s concessions will satisfy lawmakers eager to regulate the social media platform.
The hearings are in large part a response to leaked documents detailing internal research conducted by Instagram’s parent company Meta on how the image-sharing app impacts children.
In his written testimony, Mosseri signaled that he was open to some form of government oversight of social media platforms, though he favored the approach of industry self-regulation.
“Specifically, 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 parental controls,” Mosseri said. “This body should receive input from civil society, parents, and regulators to create standards that are high and protections that are universal.”
Mosseri also suggested that tech companies should be legally required to follow these best practices in order to be immune from liability for third-party content hosted on their platforms. This echoes a suggestion made by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who proposed reforming Section 230 to make liability protections contingent on platforms enforcing their own policies as they are supposed.
“And I believe that companies like ours should have to adhere to these standards to earn some of our Section 230 protections,” Mosseri said.
Mosseri’s suggestions largely left lawmakers unsatisfied, failing to address salient issues such as transparency and content recommendation algorithms.
“These changes fall well short,” Blumenthal said. “These changes leave parents and kids with no transparency into the black box algorithm.”
Blumenthal did, however, warm to Mosseri’s suggested Section 230 reforms, mentioning his EARN IT Act that forces tech companies to earn liability protections through meeting certain standards. He also floated the notion of imposing a “duty to care” on tech platforms.
Mosseri also said he would support a U.S. version of the United Kingdom’s Children’s Code, a set of standards governing online services that children frequently access.
However, Mosseri rejected the notion that the development of Instagram Kids, the version of Instagram geared towards children aged 10-12, should be suspended permanently, instead committing to a requirement that parental consent is mandatory for children under 13 to use the app.
Sen. Blackburn urged the passage of federal data privacy legislation, a proposal she has been backing for some time; she introduced a bill with Republican Sen. Roger Wicker in July that would codify national data privacy standards.
“It’s time to pass a national consumer privacy bill, and kids-specific legislation to keep minors safe online,” Blackburn said in the hearing.
Mosseri indicated he would support federal data privacy laws, again echoing Meta’s position on the issue. However, Mosseri sidestepped a question by Democratic Sen. Ed Markey on whether he would support updating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which would, among other things, move the age of online adulthood from 13 years old to 16.
He also agreed to limit targeted advertising towards children, but failed to commit to a full ban as Markey demanded.
“That just won’t cut it,” Markey said. “We have to ban targeted ads.”
Republican Sen. John Thune, the author of two bills aimed at increasing social media platform transparency — the PACT Act and the Filter Bubble Transparency Act (FBTA) — also succeeded in earning concessions from Mosseri.
Thune asked if Mosseri would support one element of the FBTA, which would require platforms to provide users with a newsfeed that doesn’t use recommendation algorithms tailoring content based on the specific user. Mosseri said he would, and that Instagram was “working on a version of a chronological feed we hope to launch next year.”
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