Meta Joins Google In Turning Its Back On The Open Web, And Embracing Unconstitutional Mandates That Pretend To ‘Protect The Children’
from the keep-pulling-up-the-ladder dept
A month ago we wrote about Google effectively “pulling up the ladder” on the open internet by embracing age verification mandates as part of a regulatory approach to child safety. As we pointed out at the time, this is bizarre and stupid for a variety of reasons, but also not too surprising.
It’s bizarre because mandates like that have recently been found unconstitutional by multiple courts. It’s stupid because there’s little evidence that age verification does anything useful, and lots of evidence that it’s actually dangerous, because in verifying ages, services need to collect a lot of personal data which is then put at risk.
It’s not surprising because the big tech companies are now facing real competition for the first time in a while, and have learned that regulatory mandates may become their only useful moat against upstart competitors.
As we noted in that original article, while Google had been somewhat better than others, Meta had already shown a willingness to throw the open internet under the bus to appease regulators. It turned the political tide on FOSTA by supporting it wholeheartedly. It has loudly embraced support for reforming Section 230, which would give Meta a huge leg up on competitors who could no longer rely on 230’s protections.
So it should be little surprise that Meta has now come out with a similar statement to Google’s, embracing mandates on parental controls. As with FOSTA, which Sheryl Sandberg wrote about in highly emotional language, Meta’s embrace of these mandates came from the company’s “Global Head of Safety,” Antigone Davis, and again uses emotional appeals.
My daughter was 12 years old when we gave her her first phone. It wasn’t an easy decision, and I agonized over whether it was the right time. As a former teacher, advisor to a state attorney general, and now an executive at Meta — I’ve dedicated my career to protecting children online. You’d think I would be confident of the right rules and guardrails to put in place for my daughter, but I worried all the same.
If you’re focused on child safety, maybe you could start by not using your child as a prop in your political ploy?
And, look, if Meta wants to use age verification or set up parental controls, it should go for it. After all, the latest less-redacted version of the lawsuit dozens of states filed against Meta shows that the company “routinely documented” how those under 13 were using Instagram, despite being banned under the company’s terms. So, it’s a bit rich for Meta to now say that there needs to be government mandates for such technology. Why not just implement it themselves?
Again, the reality here is that Meta seems focused on pulling up that open internet ladder, and you can see it in the details of this new announcement. First of all, the demand for a mandate would mean that other, much smaller competitors would also have to implement the expensive and ineffective technology that Meta never did, limiting their ability to grow.
But even more nefarious is that Meta’s embrace of these mandates also seeks to make sure that the major part of the burden doesn’t fall on Meta, but on Apple and Google. Because it suggests the age verification and parental controls should take place in the app stores.
Parents should approve their teen’s app downloads, and we support federal legislation that requires app stores to get parents’ approval whenever their teens under 16 download apps. With this solution, when a teen wants to download an app, app stores would be required to notify their parents, much like when parents are notified if their teen attempts to make a purchase. Parents can decide if they want to approve the download. They can also verify the age of their teen when setting up their phone, negating the need for everyone to verify their age multiple times across multiple apps.
Of course, as we keep pointing out, for many kids, parents are the problem. How would this kind of system work when there is an LGBTQ child searching for information or communities where they can express themselves or learn, and they have parents who are not open minded about such things?
This is a proposal that would harm many kids. Over and over again the research shows that one of the most important parts of the internet in kids’ lives is that they can use it to find their communities and better explore their own identities.
Yes, there’s a role for parents, teaching kids how to be safe, and when to know to ask for help. But that should never mean that parents (especially of teenagers) spy on every little thing that a kid does.
Yet that’s what Meta’s proposal is suggesting.
Teaching kids to be good digital citizens means teaching them about the dangers online, how to recognize them and keep themselves safe. Meta’s proposal is inserting Google and Apple as gatekeepers and taking agency away from kids, making them less prepared for the adult world that they’ll have to deal with eventually.
It’s fundamentally an approach that undermines helping kids grow into adults, all while pretending to “protect” the kids. Protect them from real life? Protect them by making sure their parents spy on every app they use? It’s a horrible plan, and a cynical one from a company that has embraced a cynical, political approach to everything.
Yes, Meta is getting hit from all sides about child safety claims, much of it driven by moral panics. So I get the decision to come out with some sort of plan to claim to politicians that “we’re doing something, and we’re not against regulations.” But this plan is bad, it’s dangerous, it’s cynical, and it appears designed to be anti-competitive at the same time.