Meta has received over 1.1 million reports of users younger than 13 on its Instagram platform since early 2019, yet it “disabled only a fraction” of those accounts, according to a newly unsealed legal complaint against the company brought by the attorneys general of 33 US states.
Instead, the social media giant “routinely continued to collect” children’s personal information without parental permission, in violation of a federal children’s privacy law. Meta could face hundreds of millions of dollars, or more, in civil penalties should the states prove the allegations.
“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 analysed and confirmed,” the complaint said, “and zealously protected from disclosure to the public.”
The privacy charges are part of a larger federal lawsuit that accuses Meta of ensnaring young people on its Instagram and Facebook platforms while concealing internal studies showing user harms. And it seeks to force Meta to stop using certain features that have harmed young users.
But much of the evidence cited by the states was blacked out by redactions in the initial filing.
Now the unsealed complaint provides new details from the states’ lawsuit. Using snippets from internal emails, employee chats and company presentations, 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.
The unsealed filing said Meta “continually failed” to make effective age-checking systems a priority and instead used approaches that enabled users under 13 to lie about their age to set up Instagram accounts. 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 they knew there were millions of underage users on Instagram.
“Tweens want access to Instagram, and they lie about their age to get it now,” Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in an internal chat in November 2021.
In Senate testimony the following month, Mosseri said: “If a child is under the age of 13, they are not permitted on Instagram.”
Meta said that it had spent a decade working to make online experiences safe and age-appropriate for teenagers and that the states’ complaint “mischaracterises our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents”.
The company added that verifying people’s ages was a “complex” challenge for online services, especially with younger users who may not have school IDs or driver’s licenses. Meta said it would like to see federal legislation that would require “app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens younger than 16 download apps” rather than having young people or their parents supply personal details such as birth dates to many different apps.
The privacy charges in the case centre on a 1998 federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. That law requires that online services with content aimed at children obtain verifiable permission from a parent before collecting personal details — like names, email addresses or selfies — from users younger than 13. Fines for violating the law can run to more than $50,000 per violation.
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 — the next generation of users — that the company needed to capture to assure continued growth.
Meta had many indicators of underage users. An internal company chart displayed in the unsealed material, for example, showed how Meta tracked the percentage of 11 and 12-year-olds who used Instagram daily, the complaint said.