States Sue Meta Over Social Media Addiction, Children's Privacy

Dozens of attorneys general on Tuesday accused Meta Platforms of misleading the public about the “substantial dangers” of Facebook and Instagram, and of violating the federal children's privacy law by collecting data from users under the age of 13.

“Meta has harnessed powerful and unprecedented technologies to entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens,” alleged 33 attorneys general in a 233-page complaint brought in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

“Its motive is profit, and in seeking to maximize its financial gains, Meta has repeatedly misled the public about the substantial dangers of its social media platforms,” the attorneys general add. “It has concealed the ways in which these platforms exploit and manipulate its most vulnerable consumers: teenagers and children. And it has ignored the sweeping damage these platforms have caused to the mental and physical health of our nation’s youth.”



Nine other attorneys general filed separate lawsuits with similar allegations. 

A Meta spokesperson stated Tuesday the company was “disappointed” that the attorneys general sued instead of “working productively with companies across the industry to create clear, age-appropriate standards for the many apps teens use.”

Numerous swaths of the joint 33-state complaint are blacked out, but the publicly available portions broadly allege that Meta designed Instagram and Facebook with addictive features -- such as displays of “like” counts, and algorithmic recommendations that funnel content to users based on their interactions with other material.

The recommendation algorithms “predictably and routinely present young users with psychologically and emotionally distressing content that induces them to spend increased time on the social media platforms,” that complaint alleges. “Once a user has interacted with such harmful content, the recommendation algorithm feeds that user additional similar content.”

The attorneys general claim that Meta violated state consumer protection laws in several ways, including by misrepresenting that Instagram and Facebook are safe and not purposely addictive.

“While Meta consistently reassures parents, lawmakers, and users that its social media platforms are suitable for young users and designed to promote their well-being, it continues to develop and implement features that it knows induce young users’ extended, addictive, and compulsive social media use,” the joint complaint alleges.

Meta, along with TikTok, YouTube and others, are facing numerous lawsuits alleging the companies are addictive and harm youngsters.

The tech companies say in those cases they're protected by the First Amendment and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, arguing that the claims boil down to complaints that other users have posted potentially harmful content.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes web companies from liability for users' posts, and the First Amendment prohibits the government from attempting to suppress lawful content -- even if potentially harmful.

Whether the companies will prevail with those arguments isn't yet clear.

Earlier this month, a state court judge in California said Section 230 didn't immunize social platforms from negligence claims by teens who say they suffered from eating disorders, anxiety, depression and other harms as a result of their social media addiction.

But a federal court judge recently blocked a California law that would have required social platforms likely to be accessed by users under 18 to prioritize their “best interests” and “well-being.”

The attorneys general also allege that Meta violates the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prohibits online sites and apps from collecting personal data of users under 13 without parental consent.

That law, which is more than 20 years old, applies to companies that actually know users' ages, and to companies that operate sites -- or “portions” of sites -- directed at children.

Most of the allegations regarding COPPA are blacked out, so it's not clear whether the attorneys general accuse Meta of actually knowing specific users were under the age of 13 and collecting their personal data anyway.

Meta says it prohibits users under 13 on the service. The company requires users to provide a birthdate when they sign up for accounts, and rejects users who say they are under 13.

Meta also says it deactivates accounts of users it suspects are under 13.

But the attorneys general appear to suggest that COPPA requires companies like Meta to authenticate users' ages, instead of asking users to declare their ages. 

“Meta has access to, and chooses not to use, feasible alternative age verification methods that would significantly reduce or eliminate the number of underage users on Meta’s social media platforms, for example, by requiring young users to submit student IDs upon registration,” the complaint alleges.

That contention, however, raises significant First Amendment concerns, given that courts have said age verification requirements online are unconstitutional.

“If state attorneys general are going in the direction of saying that age authentication is a requirement, they are overreaching and have exposed that COPPA could be subject to a First Amendment challenge,” Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman tells MediaPost.

The attorneys general also say Meta should be considered directed at children, because its audience includes “millions” of users under 13, and because it hosts child-oriented accounts -- such as ones from Hasbro and Hello Kitty.

Those child-oriented accounts should be considered a “portion” of the broader Instagram service, the attorneys general allege.

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