Meta has received more than 1.1 million reports of users under the age of 13 on its Instagram platform since early 2019, “disabled only a fraction” of those accounts, in violation of a federal children’s privacy law, according to a newly unsealed legal complaint against the company brought by the attorneys general of 33 states. Meta could face hundreds of millions of dollars, or more, in civil penalties should the states prove the allegations.
The complaint contends that Instagram for years “coveted and pursued” underage users even as the company “failed” to comply with the children’s privacy law. It also accused Meta executives of publicly stating in congressional testimony that the company’s age-checking process was effective and that the company removed underage accounts when it learned of them, even as the executives knew there were millions of underage users on Instagram.
The lawsuit argues that Meta elected not to build systems to effectively detect and exclude such underage users because it viewed children as a crucial demographic that the company needed to capture to assure continued growth. Meta also knew about accounts belonging to specific underage Instagram users through company reporting channels, yet “automatically” ignored certain reports of users under 13 and allowed them to continue using their accounts as long as the accounts did not contain a user biography or photos.
In 2019, the company agreed to pay a record $5 billion, and to alter its data practices, to settle charges from the Federal Trade Commission of deceiving users about their ability to control their privacy.
It may easier for the states to pursue Meta for children’s privacy violations than to prove that the company encouraged compulsive social media use among young people. Since 2019, the F.T.C. has successfully brought similar children’s privacy complaints against tech giants including Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Epic Games.