Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testifies at a US Senate hearing in Washington, DC, on December 8, 2021.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
WASHINGTON — Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri testified for the first time before Congress on Wednesday, refusing to commit to permanently ending the paused plans to create a version of the platform for kids under 13.
Mosseri told the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection that he is the ultimate decision-maker on the matter and that he would work to ensure no child between 10 and 12 years old would have access to any version of the platform without explicit parental consent.
He said the initial goal of creating a kids-focused product was to solve the problem of kids under 13 wanting to use Instagram and the difficulty for platforms across the industry to verify age.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the subcommittee’s chair, told reporters after the hearing he was “deeply disappointed” by the lack of commitment.
The hearing, which was part of a series of such testimonies about child protection online, once again highlighted the widespread frustration among lawmakers on the panel with what they see as the tech platform’s slowness to act on the negative effects of its product. Lawmakers came prepared with their own experiments on the platform to explore how it recommends content to young users. And while they seemed to appreciate several steps the company recently said it would take to give parents more control over young users’ activity on the platform, they wondered what has prevented those steps from already being implemented.
Mosseri said in his opening remarks that he remains proud of the platform’s efforts to keep young people safe even after leaked internal documents left lawmakers furious about what they said was the company’s lack of action.
He said in his prepared comments that “keeping young people safe online is not just about one company” and stressed a need for “industry-wide solutions and standards.” He said the company — which is owned by Meta, formerly known as Facebook — has called for “updated regulations” for years and proposed an industry body to set best practices around questions of how to verify age online and design age-appropriately.
Blumenthal made clear in his opening remarks that, in his view, industry solutions alone will not make the cut.
“Self-policing depends on trust,” Blumenthal said. “Trust is gone.”
Mosseri’s testimony comes after former Facebook employee Frances Haugen released a trove of internal research documents to journalists, Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Among the documents was a presentation, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, that found that among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users surveyed traced the issue back to Instagram.
Mosseri called into question the accuracy of that number, which was included in the company’s own documents, in his testimony Wednesday. In his written remarks, he said reporting on internal research “was mischaracterized.”
That report set off a slew of bipartisan hearings, including with Haugen and a separate hearing with a Facebook executive. But Mosseri is the highest-ranking official at the company to testify on the matter in the wake of the news.
Senators pressed Mosseri for more data behind Instagram’s internal reports referenced in the leaked documents provided by Haugen.
He said he would do everything he can to release data behind internal research referenced in the files, barring privacy issues or the possibility they were deleted due to data retention policies. He also said he would provide “meaningful access” to data to third-party researchers so they could conduct their own studies and experiments.
He also said Instagram’s community standards enforcement report for the next quarter would be independently audited by Ernst & Young.
Just a day before Wednesday’s hearing, in the very early morning, Instagram released several product updates meant to improve teen safety on the platform. The changes included prompts for teens to “Take a Break” after scrolling on the app for a while and giving parents the ability to see and limit the amount of time teens spend on the platform.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the ranking member on the subcommittee, voiced skepticism about the timing of the announcement.
“At 3:00am — 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,'” Blackburn said in her written remarks. “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.”
Regardless, Blackburn said, the measures were “too little, too late.”
Mosseri later alluded to additional measures Instagram is considering to protect user safety, including an option for a chronological feed that it’s aiming to launch in the first quarter of next year. Twitter similarly reintroduced the option for users to order their feeds in reverse chronological order in 2018.
Blackburn noted at a press conference after the hearing that “these are all concepts that are in the future. There is nothing that they brought up that they are ready to implement today.”
While Wednesday was Mosseri’s first formal congressional appearance, he is one of many Meta employees to testify over the years. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has testified several times, on topics ranging from the company’s earlier cryptocurrency ambitions to privacy policies in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Blackburn referenced the numerous testimonies from Meta officials she’s heard over the past couple of years, saying she was “frustrated” that “time and time again, you say things that make it sound like you are hearing us and agree — but then nothing changes,” according to her written remarks.
Two senators said at Wednesday’s hearing they’d recently done their own experiments on Instagram’s recommendations to young users.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said he created an account for a fictional 13-year-old girl that initially viewed hairstyle content, but soon Instagram recommended the “girl” follow a female celebrity. After that follow, Instagram began recommending posts about weight loss and plastic surgery, he said.
“It was rampant,” he added. Mosseri said he was not familiar with the particular case.
Blumenthal and Blackburn have previously conducted their own similar experiments, which they shared in past hearings.
Blumenthal also described Wednesday a recent test his team did on an account set up with all the protection options available, where they searched for “slit wrists.”
“The results, I don’t feel I can describe in this hearing, they are so graphic,” he said. “That’s within the past couple days.”
At one point in the hearing, Blackburn gave Mosseri a chance to address parents who lost their children to suicide. He referenced his own role as a father of three, saying he could not even begin to imagine that experience and that as head of Instagram, it’s his responsibility “to do all I can to keep people safe.”
“If any individual harms themselves, has a negative experience on our platform that’s something I take incredibly seriously,” he said.
But Blackburn was not impressed by his response, saying she wished it had been “more empathetic.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
(With Inputs from cnbc)
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