State Attorneys General Sue Meta Over Harms to Children and TeensGabby Miller / Oct 25, 2023
Gabby Miller is Staff Writer at Tech Policy Press.
On Oct. 24, 2023, a bipartisan coalition of 33 attorneys general filed a federal lawsuit against Meta alleging the tech company designed and deployed features on Facebook and Instagram that encouraged addictive behaviors it knew to be harmful to its young users’ mental and physical health.
The multistate suit (The State of Arizona, et al. v. Meta) filed Tuesday in the US District Court for the Northern District of California is the culmination of an investigation launched into Instagram in 2021 after Meta (then-Facebook) announced its plans to develop “Instagram Kids.” Following intense backlash from state attorneys general, lawmakers, and children’s advocacy groups, Meta quickly abandoned its plans for Instagram Kids in lieu of opt-in “parental supervision tools.” Then, the Facebook Files – documents leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen – revealed how Meta failed to fix its platforms’ ill effects on teen mental health that its own researchers had identified.
Over the past two years, the proponents of a wave of child online safety legislation, such as California’s Age Appropriate Design Code Act (CAADCA) and the federal Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), have pushed for reforms at Meta and other large social media companies like YouTube and TikTok. Today’s lawsuit is yet another example of mounting pressures by state and federal prosecutors and legislators to intercede in online child safety.
Understanding The State of Arizona, et al. v. Meta
Tuesday’s filing claims that Meta violated the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule of 1995 (COPPA). The social media company allegedly failed to provide adequate or sufficient notice to parents about the information it collects from children and how it uses that information. Meta also failed to obtain verifiable parental consent prior to collecting or using children’s personal information. (COPPA defines children as all individual users under the age of 13.)
The 233-page complaint additionally alleges that Meta engaged in deceptive acts and practices in violation of various state consumer protection laws, including misrepresenting that its products are not harmful to young users and not designed to encourage addictive use as well as engaging in unfair and unconscionable acts and practices by designing its social media platforms to include features that it knew to be psychologically and physically harmful to young users.
Altogether, the lawsuit says, these actions demonstrate that Meta prioritized financial gain at the cost of its “most vulnerable consumers” by using deceptive tactics to “entice, engage, and ultimately ensnare youth and teens.” As a consequence, social media has “profoundly altered the psychological and social realities of a generation of young Americans.”
Meta allegedly pursued a four-pronged approach to “exploit” young users, according to the suit:
- Meta created a business model focused on maximizing young users’ time and attention spent on social media;
- Meta designed and deployed harmful and psychologically manipulative product features while falsely assuring the public that its features were safe and suitable for young users;
- Meta published misleading reports boasting a deceptively low incidence of user harms;
- Despite overwhelming research on the known-harms to young users on Meta’s social media platforms, the company still refuses to abandon its use of known harmful features—and has instead redoubled its efforts to misrepresent, conceal, and downplay the impact.
With regards to Meta’s alleged COPPA noncompliance, the lawsuit says that the social media company maintains “willful ignorance” of its young users. The attorneys general cite congressional testimony in which a Meta executive pointed to the company’s terms of service disallowing under-13 users and its feature prompting users to self-report being at least 13 years old–far from reliable age assurance methods. The suit also claims Meta actively solicits underage users to its platforms.
The attorneys general are seeking injunctive and monetary relief to address Meta’s misconduct.
Responses to the filing
Various civil society groups issued statements in support of the bipartisan lawsuit against Meta. Accountable Tech executive director Nicole Gill applauded the state attorneys general’s effort to “curb Big Tech’s unchecked power over our daily lives” as Meta operates “without any regard for their role in the youth mental health crisis, focusing solely on maximizing their profits by creating addictive design features.” Gill also called out Silicon Valley’s inclination to fund tech lobbying groups, like NetChoice, to kill state-level legislation focused on child online safety rather than curbing actual harms.
Design It For Us, which describes itself as a coalition of young people taking on Big Tech, issued a statement condemning Meta for “profiting off of our safety and well-being by purposefully designing products that keep us addicted.” This, according to youth leader Thanasi Dilos, is a major contributor to the mental health epidemic among young people. They similarly condemned the social media giant for funding NetChoice rather than collaborating with advocates on legislation and guidelines.
And the Council for Responsible Social Media (CRSM), a crosspartisan group of leaders addressing the impacts of social media in America, said in a statement that this suit is a clear indicator that action from Congress to enact safeguards on social media platforms is long overdue. “Litigation is no substitute for legislation,” according to Alix Fraser, CRSM’s director, and “Congress needs to step up with solutions that hold the platforms accountable."
Former House Majority Leader and CRSM co-chair Dick Gephardt told Tech Policy Press in an interview that in order to get the necessary guardrails for harmful technologies or products in place, there have to be both legislative and legal challenges. While this many states signing on to the suit against Meta is “a big step,” according to Gephardt, it’s also “an indication of the political heat that’s coming from this problem.”
In the coming months and years, Gephardt wants to see the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA)passed and Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act amended. “I should say, I voted for Section 230 back in the 1990s when the platforms said [to Congress] that you're never going to have an internet economy if you don't make us immune from lawsuits,” Gephardt said. However, there was no way of knowing at the time, according to the former congressman, that platforms would boost feeds to capture attention with the singular goal of boosting profits.