In March, Instagram was reportedly working on a version of its app that was designed specifically for children. Today, four Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern over the project, and have written a letter to CEO Mark Zuckerburg asking fourteen pointed and technical questions about the initiative.
Buzzfeed broke the original report that the social media giant was working on a children-focused version of Instagram, citing an internal company post that it had obtained. This followed the hiring of Pavni Diwanji who joined Facebook last December from Google, where she oversaw children-focused projects like YouTube Kids.
Engadget reports that two U.S. Senators — Edward Markley and Richard Blumenthal — and two Congresswomen — Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan — have sent a detailed four-page letter to Facebook’s CEO that notes major concerns and asks fourteen pointed questions.
“Facebook has a record of failing to protect children’s privacy and safety, casting serious doubt on its ability to do so on a version of Instagram that is marketed to children,” the letter reads. “In 2019, for example, reports showed that Facebook’s Messenger Kids app, which was intended for kids between the ages of six and 12, contained a significant design flaw that allowed children to circumvent restrictions on online interactions. Specifically, Facebook allowed children using Messenger Kids to enter group chats with individuals who were not previously approved by the young users’ parents.”
That note about a Facebook Messenger design flaw is referencing a 2019 story published on The Verge, which outlines how children were able to sidestep protections in group chat systems and let children enter chats with unapproved strangers. At the time of reporting, it was unclear how long that bug was present in the app that launched in December of 2017.
“If Facebook’s objective is to decrease the number of users under the age of 13 on its current Instagram platform, it should invest in efforts to do that directly,” the letter continues. “The alternative approach that Facebook appears poised to take—specifically, pushing kids to sign up for a new platform that may itself pose threats to young users’ privacy and wellbeing—involves serious challenges and may do more harm than good.”
The four lawmakers also note that Instagram may be harmful to the wellbeing and mental health of children, saying that a growing body of research indicates that there is a link between young people’s use of social media and an increase in mental distress.
The questions asked of Zukerberg are particularly detailed. The lawmakers ask if Facebook will commit to not sharing any user data of children to third parties, if the platform will always be free of targetted advertising, if it will be free of “influencer marketing,” if it will not allow push notifications, and several other direct questions. Many, if not all, of the questions target arguably core tenets of Instagram’s main adult platform.
“Should Facebook fail to provide adequate responses to the questions above or otherwise fail to demonstrate that a future version of Instagram for children would meet the highest standards of user protection, we would advise you to abandon your plans to launch this new platform,” the letter concludes.
Protecting the information of its users is currently a particularly sore spot for Facebook, which is dealing with the revelation that it failed to reveal that over half a billion user accounts were stolen in 2019.
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