Meta routinely ignored reports of kids under 13 on Instagram, states allege

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It has never been a big secret that underage kids use social networks like Instagram and Facebook despite the Meta-owned platforms’ rule that every user be at least 13 years old. But while the company says publicly that it does what it can to remove kids’ accounts, US states suing Meta say they have evidence that the company routinely ignores reports of underage users.

“Within the company, Meta’s actual knowledge that millions of Instagram users are under the age of 13 is an open secret that is routinely documented, rigorously analyzed and confirmed, and zealously protected from disclosure to the public,” said a newly unredacted complaint released last week.

Meta received 1.1 million reports of under-13 users on Instagram between 2019 and the first half of 2023, but “disabled only a fraction of those accounts and routinely continued to collect children’s data without parental consent,” the complaint said. In 2021, Meta received over 402,000 reports of under-13 Instagram users through its website and app reporting systems, but its “records show that fewer than 164,000—far fewer than half of the reported accounts—were ‘disabled for potentially being under the age of 13’ that year,” the lawsuit said.

The states’ lawsuit was filed last month, but the original version submitted by 33 states suing Meta was much more heavily redacted. Meta agreed to lift most of the redactions, while the states agreed to Meta’s request to continue redacting the names of certain employees, a court filing on Wednesday said.

The lawsuit in US District Court for the Northern District of California said that Meta flouts Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules “by unlawfully collecting the personal data of its youngest users without their parents’ permission.” The lawsuit claims Meta has tried to avoid its COPPA responsibilities “by attempting to maintain willful ignorance of its users under the age of 13” but that it in fact has “actual knowledge” of underage users.

Internal charts and documents cited

“Despite its public-facing claims that users under the age of 13 are not allowed on Instagram, including in congressional testimony provided by Meta executive Davis in September 2021, Meta’s private internal documents reveal that Meta has coveted and pursued the under-13 Instagram user demographic for years,” a newly redacted portion of the complaint said.

The states are seeking injunctions to prevent further violations of COPPA, plus “damages, restitution, and other compensation.” The states say they have evidence from “Meta’s extensive internal records documenting its actual knowledge of its under-13 Instagram users and collection of data from those users.”

The lawsuit says the evidence includes “charts boasting Instagram’s penetration into 11- and 12-year-old demographic cohorts; an internal report presented to [CEO Mark] Zuckerberg regarding the four million under-13 users on Instagram; emails and policies documenting Meta’s mishandling of known under-13 user accounts; discussions among Meta’s researchers taking pains to avoid uncovering Instagram’s under-13 users through their studies; documents admitting that Instagram’s registration process regularly elicits false self-reported ages from its under-13 users; and data from Meta’s age-estimation algorithms confirming that millions of individual Instagram accounts belong to children under the age of 13.”

In January 2018, Zuckerberg received a report that estimated 4 million US kids under 13 were on Instagram in 2015, the lawsuit said. Because of this report, “Meta and Zuckerberg knew that roughly a third of all 10- to 12-year-olds in the United States were using Instagram and sharing personal information with Meta through that Platform,” the lawsuit said. Still, the company allegedly “did not obtain verifiable parental consent for its ongoing collection of personal information from those users.”

An internal document from 2018 also acknowledged that “we do very little to keep U13s off our platform,” the lawsuit said.

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