By David Shepardson and Elizabeth Culliford
(Reuters) – The head of Instagram said on Wednesday he aims to launch next year a version of the app with a chronological feed, rather than one ranked algorithmically, in his first appearance before Congress where he was grilled about children’s safety online.
Instagram’s Adam Mosseri was the latest tech executive pressed by lawmakers to provide more transparency into their platforms’ algorithms and the impact of the content they curate and recommend for users.
Instagram and its parent company Meta Platforms Inc, formerly Facebook, have come under intense scrutiny over the potential impact of their services on the mental health, body image and safety of young users, including after whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents about the company’s approach to younger users.
Speaking before a Senate panel, Mosseri said the photo-sharing app had been working “for months” on the option of a feed ordered chronologically and planned to launch it in early 2022, in a significant change for the service, which uses algorithmic ranking to personalize a feed based on user preferences.
At the hearing, lawmakers pushed Mosseri for specific answers on what legislative reforms he would support around kids’ online safety, including on targeted advertising. In his opening remarks, Senator Richard Blumenthal said the time for self-regulation was over.
In his testimony, Mosseri called for the creation of an industry body to determine best practices to help keep young people safe online. The body, he said, should receive input from civil society, parents, and regulators to create standards on how to verify age, design age-appropriate experiences, and build parental controls.
Mosseri said tech companies should have to adhere to standards by this proposed industry body to “earn” some of their Section 230 protections, referring to a key U.S. internet law which offers tech platforms protections from liability over content posted by users.
‘TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE’
Instagram, since September, has suspended plans for a version of the app for kids, amid growing opposition to the project.
The pause followed a Wall Street Journal report that said internal documents, leaked by former Facebook employee Haugen, showed the company knew Instagram could have harmful mental health effects on teens.
Mosseri, speaking at the hearing, echoed the company’s previous statements that public reporting mischaracterized the internal research. He did not commit to making permanent the pause on a kids-focused version of Instagram.
He also touted product announcements Instagram made on Tuesday on young users’ safety, but Senator Marsha Blackburn called the updates “too little, too late,” while Senator Blumenthal referred to the changes, including Instagram’s pause on its kids app, as a “public relations tactic.”
In a call after the hearing, Blackburn said she would like to see Instagram offer “today” the option for a purely chronological news feed while Blumenthal said it could be a “significant step depending on the details.”
Senator Blackburn also said that her team created a fake Instagram account for a 15-year-old that defaulted to a public account, despite Instagram’s changes to make new accounts for users under 16 private by default. Mosseri said this loophole had been missed on the web version of the site and would be corrected.
Instagram, like other social media sites, has rules against children under 13 joining the platform but has said it knows it has users this age. In his testimony, Mosseri called for more age verification technology at a phone level, rather than by individual tech platforms, so users have an “age-appropriate experience.”
(Reporting by David Shepardson, Elizabeth Culliford and Diane Bartz; Editing by Chris Sanders, Franklin Paul, Mark Porter, Bernadette Baum and Aurora Ellis)