with Aaron Schaffer

Social media companies, particularly Instagram and YouTube, have been heavily scrutinized this year by lawmakers who argue that they are not doing enough to protect teens’ privacy and safety on their platforms. Now, Instagram is rolling out a fleet of policy updates that it says will help protect kids online.

The photo-sharing app announced Tuesday that it will only let advertisers use age, gender and location to serve ads to people younger than 18 — cutting out the more invasive personalized targeting of users’ specific interests.

It will also set new accounts for people under 16 to private by default, meaning teens will have to approve new followers before their posts are visible. And some adult users who have exhibited “suspicious behavior” will be barred from messaging with young users and commenting on their posts.

The new features are part of ongoing work to protect kids on the app, said Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, in an interview.

The changes may also be a way to appease lawmakers who have brought child safety on social media to the forefront of broader efforts to crack down on Big Tech. 

In May, Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, a proposal to update the decades-old federal law designed to protect children online. The bill would ban targeted advertising directed at children and prohibit Internet companies from collecting data from teenagers between the ages 13 and 15 without the user’s consent.

During a March congressional hearing, representatives from both sides of the aisle expressed concern that young children are at risk of Internet addiction and cyberbullying. 

At the time, lawmakers zeroed in on Facebook’s plans to design a version of Instagram specifically for kids younger than 13, a product that would limit the tracking and targeting of children in accordance with federal law. But several lawmakers, state attorneys general and children’s advocates argued that a stand-alone app could compromise privacy and would get kids engaged with social media early, which they fear will worsen social media addiction.

Tech companies have an incentive to pull in customers young and foster their engagement until they are old enough to sell targeted ads against, according to Jim Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, which advocates for children’s safety online.

“It’s basically the classic brand marketing approach — get kids from cradle to grave,” he told The Washington Post when Instagram revealed its plans for an app for kids.

On Tuesday, Instagram posted a blog entry from Pavni Diwanji, it’s vice president of youth products, saying it is continuing to work on artificial intelligence that will help verify users’ ages by using text-based clues, such as comments they leave. (“Happy 21st birthday!” might be a clue, for example.) 

Diwanji resisted some requests to require IDs for users, saying many kids and teens don’t have access to such documentation anyway.

Newton denied that the new features were built in response to public pressure, saying they are part of a body of work that makes the app safer for kids.

The feature to make teens’ accounts private by default will start rolling out this week and will suggest to existing users under 18 that they can switch their public accounts to private if they wish. When Instagram tested the feature, about 80 percent of teens chose to use a private account setting, Newton said. 

She said she believes it will help protect teens as they learn the ins and outs of sharing online. “Nobody is magically at 13 given the skills to use social media,” Newton said. 

That includes the knowledge to navigate the often confusing privacy and ad-targeting settings Facebook includes in its products. Limiting ad targeting is an admission that Instagram’s policies aren’t always clear, especially to younger users, and could be a nod to lawmakers’ concerns about marketing to kids. It remains to be seen whether the new policies will go far enough to please lawmakers.

Correction: Instagram's default privacy setting will apply to users under 16. A representative for Instagram previously said the policy applied to teens under 18.

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Tech giants plan to expand their extremism database.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) database will expand its focus beyond terrorist groups such as the Islamic State to include material published by white supremacists before racist attacks, Elizabeth Culliford of Reuters reports. It also plans to include more information on militant groups such as the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters, whose members have been charged with conspiracy in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in an effort to crack down on extremist content.

Tech companies have long faced criticism for the pervasiveness of extremist content on their platforms. Fourteen companies, including Reddit, Instagram, Snap, and Dropbox, can access the GIFCT database to review and remove extremist content. The group was founded by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube in 2017. 

Lawmakers told the Biden administration to consider sanctioning NSO Group.

Four Democratic lawmakers said the Biden administration should consider export controls and a new sanctions policy to target NSO Group in the wake of revelations about the firm’s Pegasus spyware by The Washington Post and 16 media partners, Cristiano Lima reports. They also called for an investigation into the potential targeting of Americans and whether U.S. national security has been harmed by Pegasus use.

NSO Group has repeatedly disputed findings by the Pegasus Project consortium, which found that Pegasus targeted journalists and human rights activists around the world.

The lawmakers’ statement was titled “Enough Is Enough,” an apparent reference to an NSO Group news release last week saying that the company would no longer respond to requests for comment about Pegasus.

European regulators say Google has two months to improve its hotel and flight search results.

Regulators want Google to explain how search results are ranked on its Google Flights and Hotels services, Reuters’s Foo Yun Chee reports. Regulators also said they found a “significant imbalance” in the rights that traders have over consumers and said they wanted the company to change its terms to give consumers more power.

“We welcome this dialogue and are working closely with consumer protection agencies and the European Commission to see how we can make improvements that will be good for our users and provide even more transparency,” the company said.

Rant and rave

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, offered to waive up to $2 billion in NASA contract fees so his Blue Origin company can remain involved in the U.S. government effort to send astronauts to the moon, Aaron Gregg reports. BNN Bloombergs David George-Cosh:

The American Enterprise Institutes James Pethokoukis:

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  • EPIC announced 11 additions to its advisory board.

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  • The Federal Trade Commission holds its PrivacyCon event today.
  • Google, Apple and Microsoft hold earnings calls at 4:30 p.m., 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. today, respectively.
  • Top American, Australian, Indian and Japanese officials speak at the Quad Open RAN Forum on Wednesday at 8 a.m.
  • Facebook holds an earnings call on Wednesday at 5 p.m.
  • Amazon holds an earnings call on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

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