It is no secret that children use Meta properties, despite Terms of Service rules and Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rules against it. The company has long stated that it responds quickly to reports of underaged users, but new data shows that is not true. And, to add insult to injury, the company has sued the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to allow them to monetize those underaged users.
What is COPPA?
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a U.S. federal law designed to protect the privacy of children under 13 who use online services. Enacted by the 105th United States Congress and effective since April 21, 20002, COPPA gives parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids. The law requires operators of commercial websites and online services directed to children under 13, or knowingly collecting personal information from children under 13, to follow certain regulations.
These regulations include notifying parents of their information practices, obtaining verifiable parental consent for the collection, use, or disclosure of children's personal information, and allowing parents to prevent further maintenance, use, or future collection of their child's personal information. Operators are also required to provide parents access to their child's personal information, not require a child to provide more personal information than is reasonably necessary to participate in an activity, and maintain reasonable procedures to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of the personal information. The Act also includes a "safe harbor" provision allowing industry groups and others to request Commission approval of self-regulatory guidelines to govern participating websites' compliance with the Rule.
Meta's lax compliance
The result of COPPA was that online services have generally prohibited children from using their services or in some cases have built child-focused versions of their offerings. Meta took the former route, generally prohibiting children from using Facebook, Instagram, Threads, etc. But, Meta has never been great at compliance with their own policies or the rules of COPPA.
Revealed in a recently unredacted complaint,
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.
Between 2019 and mid-2023, the company received 1.1 million reports of underaged users, but the company only responded to a small fraction of those reports. Records show that of the 402k reports in 2021, the company only disabled around 164k of the offending accounts. The complaint went on to say,
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.
Meta wants to monetize kids' data
On one hand, Meta will be defending themselves in a lawsuit brought by several states over child privacy violations. On the other, the company has filed its own suit against the FTC. This suit asks the FTC to allow Meta to monetize the data collected from the kids that it has and has not prohibited from accessing its systems, among other kids.
The complaint stems from a proposed change to the 2020 privacy settlement. The change would prevent Meta and Facebook from monetizing data from all minor users, not just those covered by COPPA. That means that any user between 13 through 17 would be allowed to use the platform but would not be able to generate revenue for the company.
The lawsuit alleges that the FTC has overreached its authority, both from a structural perspective and a Constitutional one. This will be a complicated argument for Meta to make in court. They are essentially arguing that the FTC is both prosecutor and judge, violating the company's Constitutional rights. However, they do have a point - being able to charge and pass judgement puts a lot of power into the hands of unelected bureaucrats in the Federal government.