Recently un-redacted documents show that states claim to have evidence that Meta, Facebook’s and Instagram’s parent company, knew that children under the age of 13 were using the system, took no steps to prevent children from gaining access to Facebook, profited off of collecting their data without parental consent, and recieved over a million reports of children under 13 having accounts on Meta properties but removed only a fraction of them. Now, these are just allegations. Nothing has been proven in court, but it won’t matter much even if they are. The end result of this lawsuit is, at best, a breakup of Meta. More likely, a fine will be imposed. Nothing serious will happen to the leadership that allowed these behaviors to persist and so they will be perpetuated. People, not companies, need to face the consequences for these actions if we want to put an end to them.
If these accusations are true, Meta is clearly profiting from children under 13. The intent is to mine their personal data and sell or use it for their home-grown ad network and to get children hooked on, or to be less cynical, loyal to Meta products. This last is where the real money is.
I learned to program in middle school on Apple computers. Not because there was something inherently superior to Apple computers of the day, but because Apple gave the education market a decent discount. Apple’s hope was that as we students grew up, we would gravitate toward the computers we first became comfortable using. It is a not unreasonable expectation, even if it failed in my case (I really hate Apple products for a variety of reasons) and a benign version of what Meta is doing. I say benign because there were responsible adults involved in the decision-making process and in overseeing my activities on the machines. Meta, on the other hand, is allegedly attempting to hook children on social media products in order to arrest their slide into irrelevance. And it will likely work, regardless of the trial’s outcome.
If the companies are broken up, then the people in charge of, say, an independent Facebook and Instagram, will still need to do things to get younger users into their rapidly aging userbase. There is no reason these alleged tactics cannot be used by a divided Facebook or Instagram, even if some of the profit would be taken out if their ad-network is truly independent. This is even more true if the penalty is a fine — a fine unlikely to be more than their expected profit. They can simply continue to do what they are alleged to be doing and still come out ahead. In fact, companies that are fined for bad behavior have a history of doing just that. Fines are generally not a deterrent — they are a cost.
I know which issues companies take seriously, because those are the issues that people with a “Chief” in their title ask me about the progress on. Sometimes, those are regulation related — where the regulation has a significant enough fine to be taken seriously or is deemed important enough (fortunately, I believe I work for an ethical company). Unfortunately, not may fines rise to that level. But if you put executives in jail, then that might actually change behaviors.
Many people argue that holding the people ultimately responsible for how a company does business responsible for things like systematic rule violations and wage theft is unfair. After all, the top executives didn’t personally break the rules and finding smoking gun evidence that they ordered it is very difficult. To those complaints I have three arguments.
First, Sarbanes-Oxley, the reforms that came out after Enron and related financial malfeasance, made officers of the company liable for the audits and financial statements they sign off on, has had a measurable effect on corporate behavior despite similar claims on unfairness at the time of its adoptions.
Second, C-suite executives get paid an enormous amount of money, much more than in the past, justified in part by their ability to lead. Well, if their leadership creates an environment where 13-year olds’ data is profited from without parental consent, then their leadership and thus they are to blame. Get the pay, take the responsibility.
Finally, as I noted, high ranking executives are able to care about and shape the response of the company to issues they deem important. Everyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment knows that the top executives can and do shape priorities and resources to ensure that the projects they care about get proper attention. If they had to care about, say, not allowing children on the system or they could go to jail, it is not unreasonable to believe there would be reasonable safeguards in place preventing the vast majority of children from accessing the systems.
We live in a world where a tiny uptick in street crimes results in calls for massive upticks in penalties and police budgets. But systematic crimes, like wage theft and profiting from children’s data? We are suddenly concerned with the impacts of criminalizing bad behavior. This radically soft on crime attitude is a massive incentive to allow corporate criminals to continue their crimes. We need to do better and that means making the people who profit from the crimes pay for the crimes.