Facebook Global Head of Safety made commitments to Congress last week that Facebook does not allow advertisers to target teen users with dangerous content
Washington (October 4, 2021) – Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, wrote to Facebook today demanding answers after new research revealed that the company failed to meet commitments it made regarding the promotion of harmful advertisements to teen Facebook users. These commitments include comments by Antigone Davis, Facebook’s Global Head of Safety, at a September 30th, 2021 hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security. During the hearing, Senator Markey queried Davis on the negative mental health impacts Facebook and Instagram have had on young users and called on Facebook to commit that it will not launch any platforms for children that amplify harmful content. Davis responded, “We actually don’t allow weight loss ads to be shown to people under the age of 18 already,” and she went on to state, “We don’t allow tobacco ads at all. We don’t allow them to children either. We don’t allow alcohol ads to minors.” Contrary to these statements, new research shows Facebook allowed advertisers to target with exactly these types of inappropriate and dangerous content to teen users.   
“These findings cast serious doubt on Facebook’s compliance with promises your employees have publicly made, and they are particularly concerning in light of other recent reports, which suggest that Facebook has direct knowledge that its platforms are harmful to young people,” wrote Senator Markey in his letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “I request a detailed explanation of the apparent inconsistency between Facebook’s commitments and your platform’s practices, as well as a detailed review of the steps you are currently taking and plan to take to stop Facebook from allowing teen users to be targeted with inappropriate and dangerous content.”
A copy of the letter can be found HERE.
According to research conducted by the Campaign for Accountability’s Tech Transparency Project, as recently as September 2021, Facebook allowed advertisers to target teen users as young as 13 years old with inappropriate and dangerous content, including advertisements promoting “pill abuse, alcoholic beverages, anorexia, smoking, dating services, and gambling.”
Last week, Senator Markey, along with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), reintroduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, legislation to stop online practices such as manipulative marketing, amplification of harmful content, and damaging design features, which threaten young people online.
Senator Markey has repeatedly pressed Facebook on apparent contradictions between its public commitments and its algorithmic practices. In January, Senator Markey demanded answers when reports showed that Facebook continued to recommend political groups to users despite committing to stopping the practice. At a hearing before the Committee on October 28, 2020, Zuckerberg stated to Senator Markey that Facebook no longer recommended political groups. However, media reports reveal that Facebook continued to recommend political groups that promoted violence, targeted elected officials, and supported insurrection after Zuckerberg made his commitment.
Senator Markey has been working to hold Facebook accountable on privacy protections for more than a decade. In 2011, then-Rep. Markey urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the company’s privacy practices after published findings that Facebook had been gathering information about the websites its users visited even after users logged out of Facebook, leading in part to the company agreeing to settle FTC charges that it deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public. In 2012, then-Rep. Markey queried the company about reports that it was considering a plan to allow children under the age of 12 to have access to the social networking site. In 2013, Senator Markey continued his oversight of Facebook’s consent policy, querying the company on proposed changes to its privacy policies that indicated consumers would automatically cede to Facebook the right to use their personal information, including names, faces, and other information, unless they expressly revoke permission. In 2014, Markey pressed Facebook on a proposed change of policy that would allow the company to gather information about users, even youth as young as 13, from websites outside its network and then use that information to target advertisements at users. In 2017, Senator Markey and Senator Blumenthal sent a letter to Facebook about the company’s release of “Messenger Kids,” an app designed specifically for children 12 and under. And in 2018, Senator Markey was one of the first members of Congress to call for Zuckerberg to testify to Congress in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Later that year, Senators Markey and Blumenthal demanded answers from Facebook when it was found that the company shared user information with dozens of device companies without user consent. In 2018, Senator Markey questioned whether the company had failed to keep its commitments to the 2011 consent decree. In 2019, on Facebook’s privacy settlement with the FTC (after the FTC alleged violations of its 2011 consent decree), Senator Markey said, “Facebook is getting away with some of the most egregious corporate bad behavior in the age of the internet.”