In a Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee hearing that was intended to focus on privacy and competition, Senators in both parties took the opportunity to publicly dress down the first Facebook executive to appear before them since revelations were published in the Wall Street Journal related to Instagram’s effects on the mental health of teens.
Steve Satterfield, Vice President of Privacy and Public Policy at Facebook, repeatedly tried to dodge pointed questions by reminding Senators of his limited area of responsibility at the company. But that did little to deter often heated responses from Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).
About an hour into the hearing, Senator Lee, the Ranking Member of the Antitrust & Consumer Rights Subcommittee, provided the transition from competition issues to the concerns raised by the Wall Street Journal report, which relied on a trove of internal research from Facebook.
“The Wall Street Journal released a series of bombshell reports last week on internal Facebook documents that revealed shocking absolutely stunning lapses in Facebook’s ability to protect Facebook’s consumers from being harmed by using its platforms,” said Lee. “This, too, looks like behavior of a monopolist so sure its customers have nowhere else to go that it displays a reckless disregard for quality assurance, for its own brand image, and even just being honest with its users about the obvious safety risks that it is subjecting it users to, particularly its teenage users.”
Echoing the Facebook company line, Satterfield said the Wall Street Journal series of articles “raises very serious and important questions” but that it “misses the mark in terms of what we are trying to do in the matters it describes.” Senator Lee compared the situation to similar revelations with regard to Big Tobacco.
Senator Blumenthal pointed to a letter his committee sent in August about Instagram’s effects on teen health, which he said the company dodged. “For years Facebook studies have found clear links between Instagram and mental health problems, and it was common knowledge in the company, so that the response was a clear attempt to mislead Congress and misinform parents,” he said, entering the Wall Street Journal article into the Congressional record. “The comparison made by Senator Lee to Big Tobacco is entirely apt.”
But perhaps the most pointed exchange came between Satterfield and Senator Josh Hawley. “Can I just ask you a fundamental question,” asked Senator Hawley, “are teenagers safe on any of your platforms?”
“Senator, we’re working really hard to make that the case,” said Satterfield.
“So they’re not now?” replied Senator Hawley.
“Senator, I, we are investing a lot in safety and integrity across all of our platforms, we’ve invested billions of dollars.”
Hawley went on to read a range of findings from the Facebook internal research, including results on social comparison, depression, and links to suicide. Satterfield said while he doesn’t work on such issues, the company is investing to “identify gaps and address them.” Hawley asked Satterfield to commit to making the research public- after some back and forth, Satterfield arrived at the response that “it’s something we’re looking into, how to provide greater transparency with appropriate context.”
“What’s the context for 32% of teen girls saying that they feel worse when they use Instagram?” replied Hawley, before drawing the focus back to Facebook’s initial motivations to purchase Instagram, an acquisition that has raised competition concerns. Like Senator Lee, Senator Hawley suggested that Facebook’s lack of concern for its users may be tied to its competitive position, which makes it less concerned about the needs of its users.
Senator Marsha Blackburn queried Satterfield on the amount of data that Facebook hoovers up on teens, while Senator Ted Cruz said he was asked to read the Wall Street Journal article by his wife. Having apparently missed Senator Hawley’s litany of concerning results drawn from the Facebook research, Cruz read them again.
.@SenTedCruz Cruz (R-TX): “In the judgement of Facebook, is increased teen suicide an acceptable business risk?”— CSPAN (@cspan) September 21, 2021
Steve Satterfield, Facebook’s Privacy & Public Policy Vice President: “Senator, of course not.” pic.twitter.com/OnMEnSjDyY
“What’s the culpability of a company that knows it is contributing to and expanding teen suicide?” demanded Cruz. “In your judgment, in the judgment of Facebook, is increased teen suicide an acceptable business risk?”
“Senator, of course not,” said Satterfield.
“Has Facebook quantified how many additional teens took their life because of your products?”
“Senator, with respect, these aren’t the issues that I work on, I came here today to work on data and antitrust,” Satterfield started. A heated exchange followed.
The next hearing on these matters will be on September 30th- Senator Blumenthal asked Satterfield if Facebook would commit to sending a “ranking, qualified and knowledgable representative to that hearing,” which Blumenthal will host with Senator Blackburn in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.