Facebook is ubiquitous
Facebook has billions of users and is pretty much unavoidable, even to a light Internet user, due to its tentacles (Illustration by Geralt)

A coali­tion of sev­er­al dozen states today filed a land­mark law­suit against Meta Plat­forms, the com­pa­ny con­trolled by Mark Zucker­berg that owns and oper­ates Face­book, Insta­gram, and What­sapp, alleg­ing that it has vio­lat­ed numer­ous fed­er­al and state laws through its harm­ful and decep­tive busi­ness practices.

Among those states are Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, and Ida­ho, each of which is par­tic­i­pat­ing in the case. The for­mer are alleg­ing vio­la­tions of their respec­tive laws.

Wash­ing­ton, rep­re­sent­ed by Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son, alleges vio­la­tions of Wash­ing­ton’s Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act, Wash. Rev. Code. § 19.86.

“Meta engaged in decep­tive acts or prac­tices affect­ing Wash­ing­ton con­sumers, includ­ing young users, par­ents of young users, and Meta adver­tis­ers, and in vio­la­tion of Wash. Rev. Code. § 19.86.020 by mak­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, express­ly or by impli­ca­tion, regard­ing its Social Media Plat­forms,” the law­suit says. It then cites sev­en spe­cif­ic ways in which Meta vio­lat­ed the law.

Ore­gon, rep­re­sent­ed by Attor­ney Gen­er­al Ellen Rosen­blum, alleges vio­la­tions of Oregon’s Unlaw­ful Trade Prac­tices Act (UTPA), pur­suant to O.R.S. § 646.636:

“Meta, act­ing in the course of its busi­ness­es, voca­tions, or occu­pa­tions, vio­lat­ed O.R.S. § 646.608(1)(e) when Meta express­ly and by impli­ca­tion made false or mis­lead­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions that its goods or ser­vices have char­ac­ter­is­tics, uses, ben­e­fits or qual­i­ties that the goods or ser­vices do not have. The rep­re­sen­ta­tions relate to Meta’s Social Media Plat­forms,” the law­suit says.

Ida­ho, rep­re­sent­ed by Attor­ney Gen­er­al Raúl Labrador, is not request­ing any state-spe­cif­ic relief. How­ev­er, it is join­ing the oth­er states in alleg­ing that Meta vio­lat­ed COPPA. That’s the Chil­dren’s Online Pri­va­cy Pro­tec­tion Rule, a fed­er­al reg­u­la­tion which “impos­es cer­tain require­ments on oper­a­tors of web­sites or online ser­vices direct­ed to chil­dren under thir­teen years of age, and on oper­a­tors of oth­er web­sites or online ser­vices that have actu­al knowl­edge that they are col­lect­ing per­son­al infor­ma­tion online from a child under thir­teen years of age.”

“Over the past decade, Meta — itself and through its flag­ship Social Media Plat­forms Face­book and Insta­gram (its Social Media Plat­forms or Platforms)—has pro­found­ly altered the psy­cho­log­i­cal and social real­i­ties of a gen­er­a­tion of young Amer­i­cans,” the plain­tiff states argue in their intro­duc­tions,” the law­suit alleges.

“Meta has har­nessed pow­er­ful and unprece­dent­ed tech­nolo­gies to entice, engage, and ulti­mate­ly ensnare youth and teens. Its motive is prof­it, and in seek­ing to max­i­mize its finan­cial gains, Meta has repeat­ed­ly mis­led the pub­lic about the sub­stan­tial dan­gers of its Social Media Plat­forms,” the suit adds.

“It has con­cealed the ways in which these Plat­forms exploit and manip­u­late its most vul­ner­a­ble con­sumers: teenagers and chil­dren. And it has ignored the sweep­ing dam­age these Plat­forms have caused to the men­tal and phys­i­cal health of our nation’s youth. In doing so, Meta engaged in, and con­tin­ues to engage in, decep­tive and unlaw­ful con­duct in vio­la­tion of state and fed­er­al law.”

A lat­er pas­sage in the suit — parts of which are heav­i­ly redact­ed, appar­ent­ly to pro­tect pro­pri­etary trade secrets — delves fur­ther into one of these arguments.

That pas­sage notes: “Meta’s design choic­es and prac­tices take advan­tage of and con­tribute to young users’ sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to addic­tion. They exploit psy­cho­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of young users through the false promise that mean­ing­ful social con­nec­tion lies in the next sto­ry, image, or video and that ignor­ing the next piece of social con­tent could lead to social isolation.”

The alleged­ly ille­gal con­duct dis­cussed in the law­suit will be famil­iar to any­one who has watched The Social Dilem­ma, a docu­d­ra­ma that came out in 2020 on Net­flix and fea­tured sev­er­al peo­ple who were for­mer­ly employed at Meta and Google, includ­ing Tim Kendall, for­mer direc­tor of mon­e­ti­za­tion at Facebook.

Meta pub­lished a dig­i­tal paper in response to The Social Dilem­ma which tried to dis­cred­it the state­ments made by for­mer insid­ers by say­ing in part that they no longer work at Meta or oth­er big tech com­pa­nies, so they can’t author­i­ta­tive­ly crit­i­cize the likes of Meta — a very con­ve­nient and self-serv­ing posture:

“Rather than offer a nuanced look at tech­nol­o­gy, it [the film] gives a dis­tort­ed view of how social media plat­forms work to cre­ate a con­ve­nient scape­goat for what are dif­fi­cult and com­plex soci­etal prob­lems. The film’s cre­ators do not include insights from those cur­rent­ly work­ing at the com­pa­nies or any experts that take a dif­fer­ent view to the nar­ra­tive put for­ward by the film.”

“They also don’t acknowl­edge — crit­i­cal­ly or oth­er­wise — the efforts already tak­en by com­pa­nies to address many of the issues they raise. Instead, they rely on com­men­tary from those who haven’t been on the inside for many years.”

No doubt Meta will once again claim that it is being sub­ject­ed to unfair criticism.

“We’re dis­ap­point­ed that instead of work­ing pro­duc­tive­ly with com­pa­nies across the indus­try to cre­ate clear, age-appro­pri­ate stan­dards for the many apps teens use, the attor­neys gen­er­al have cho­sen this path,” the com­pa­ny said after the law­suit was announced by the dozens of states bring­ing it.

Meta would not have to be “dis­ap­point­ed” to be on the receiv­ing end of a law­suit like this if its busi­ness prac­tices were eth­i­cal and respon­si­ble. There’s a grow­ing moun­tain of evi­dence that the com­pa­ny has repeat­ed­ly cho­sen to put its own finan­cial inter­ests above the safe­ty and well-being of its bil­lions of users.

“Meta has been the sub­ject of wide­spread and grow­ing pub­lic scruti­ny,” not­ed a release from Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son’s office announc­ing the suit.

“Around the time the coali­tion start­ed its inves­ti­ga­tion, a whistle­blow­er at Meta revealed that the com­pa­ny was cir­cu­lat­ing exten­sive research inter­nal­ly regard­ing the risk of harm to its users, includ­ing youth. The com­pa­ny has also been the tar­get of bipar­ti­san Con­gres­sion­al hear­ings on the safe­ty of kids online and a doc­u­men­tary film fea­tur­ing warn­ings from for­mer Meta insid­ers who helped design the fea­tures at the cen­ter of the coalition’s fed­er­al lawsuit.”

The com­plaint ini­ti­at­ing the law­suit may be read in its entire­ty below.

Mul­ti-state com­plaint against Meta

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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