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Meta Faces Multi-State Lawsuit Over Claims of Addictive Design and Child Harm

Thirty-three states have taken legal action against Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, accusing them of creating addictive applications detrimental to the well-being of youngsters.


The collective lawsuit, led by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, was launched in San Francisco's federal court on Tuesday. The states argue that Meta breached the national children's online privacy act and numerous state consumer protection legislations by cultivating addictive products and misrepresenting their potential harm to children.


Furthermore, eight other state attorneys general and the District of Columbia are separately pursuing legal actions in their respective jurisdictions. In sum, 42 entities, inclusive of the District of Columbia, announced lawsuits on Tuesday.


A victory for the states might compel Meta to revisit its product design and marketing techniques, potentially resulting in substantial penalties. The approach mirrors the 1990s litigation against tobacco companies, which resulted in transformative marketing changes and vast financial repercussions.


Highlighting the issue's magnitude, Bonta emphasized the collaborative effort involving both Republican and Democratic AGs. The lawsuit alleges that Meta provided misleading information, suggesting their features were non-manipulative, that their products did not encourage unhealthy child engagement, and that their platforms were safe for young users.


However, Meta has defended its stance, highlighting over 30 design adjustments made to enhance child safety. They expressed disappointment with the decision of the attorneys general to take legal action rather than cooperatively establishing clear standards for apps designed for teenagers.


This federal lawsuit marks the most significant state-initiated challenge, asserting a social media firm's breach of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act and consumer protection regulations. The lawsuit alleges that Meta knowingly allowed users under 13 without obtaining parental consent. While Meta prohibits users under the age of 13, enforcement is allegedly lax.


As an example, the lawsuit highlights a 2021 interaction between teen influencer JoJo Siwa and Instagram's head, Adam Mosseri. Siwa revealed her Instagram usage since age eight and acknowledged having followers younger than 13. Mosseri's dismissive response to this admission is spotlighted in the lawsuit.


With the aim of overhauling Meta's operating protocols, the states are seeking several amendments. Bonta suggested limitations on app usage duration for young users and adjustments to the content display algorithms.


Congress's inaction regarding COPPA updates or new protective measures, such as the Kids Online Safety Act, adds to the urgency. President Joe Biden has consistently advocated for children's safety and privacy legislation, particularly in light of warnings about the adverse mental health effects of extended social media use.


This collective legal effort emerged from an investigation initiated in November 2021, following Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen's revelations about Instagram's algorithmic promotion of unhealthy content. Haugen commended the states' proactive stance, drawing parallels to previous tobacco industry litigations.


While utilizing state consumer protection laws against social media giants is innovative, the effectiveness of this legal approach remains to be seen. Despite potential challenges from Meta referencing Section 230 or First Amendment rights, Bonta remains optimistic about their case's prospects.


Child safety advocates are pressing for legislative action, cautioning that court cases might span years. Alix Fraser, head of the Council for Responsible Social Media, emphasized the primacy of children's well-being over tech profits, urging Congress to implement accountable solutions.

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