Montana Sues Meta, Alleging Instagram Violates Consumer Protection Laws

Suit claims company is skirting laws surrounding what children can access, data collection

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan
The Montana State Capitol building in Helena. Beacon file photo

After being dealt a blow in the state’s efforts to ban TikTok, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is now suing Instagram and its parent company and affiliates alleging the company makes adult content available for children and violates state and federal consumer protection laws.

Knudsen, on behalf of the state, filed a lawsuit Friday in federal court asking a judge to declare that Instagram and parent company Meta are conducting deceptive and unfair trade practices, to enjoin the company from doing so, and to award the state civil penalties and investigatory and litigation costs.

“Meta must be held accountable for its deceptive practices and the harm it has caused,” Knudsen said in a statement. “Instagram’s intentional addictive design and its failure to address the rampant presence of harmful content on its platform, including explicit drug promotion and sexual exploitation, pose serious risks to the mental health and well-being of young Montanans.”

Spokespersons for Meta did not return a message Tuesday seeking comment on the new lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed a day after another federal judge issued a preliminary injunction temporarily prohibiting the state’s TikTok ban from taking effect on Jan. 1. The judge in that case found the outright ban likely violates the First Amendment and other clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

And it comes more than a month after a coalition of 42 other attorneys general, led by Colorado’s, sued Meta over similar claims contained in Knudsen’s new lawsuit: that the company knew of the harmful impact on young people, misled the public about those harms, and collected user data from young users of the platform without the parents’ consent.

Montana did not join that lawsuit, which stemmed from a bipartisan investigation that started in 2021 led by Colorado’s and Tennessee’s attorneys general. Among Montana’s neighboring states, Idaho and South Dakota are plaintiffs in that case.

Knudsen’s office said he had also been investigating Meta and Instagram since 2021, but did not respond to a question in October about why it did not join the lawsuit with the other states. A spokesperson for Colorado’s attorney general did not return a phone call Tuesday asking if Montana had declined to be involved in that case.

But Knudsen’s lawsuit makes many of the same claims against Meta and Instagram and cites the same reports the other attorneys general cited in their suit: one from Digital Citizens Alliance that found drugs being advertised on Instagram and another from the Wall Street Journal, Stanford University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst that found rings of pedophiles were connecting and buying child sex content on the platform.

Knudsen’s lawsuit says while those reports have documented illegal activity involving underage children, and the companies’ executives have also at times admitted to some of the claims made about a lack of safety guardrails for children, the companies market their products in app stores as being for teenagers ages 12+, and Instagram only requires users to enter a birthday to sign up.

“Defendants allow rampant profanity, sexual content and nudity, alcohol, tobacco, and drug use and references, and mature/suggestive themes on the Instagram platform, including readily accessible hardcore pornography,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants use human and computer moderators to police the content on Instagram, but those moderators either systematically fail or apply internal policies that allow these types of content to remain on the platform.

“Whether by design or by failure, defendants’ moderators miss large amounts of mature content on Instagram, leaving young Montanans regularly exposed to it.”

The lawsuit says Knudsen and his team created a test account in which they were able to view photos and videos containing drug and alcohol use and sales, sex, pornography, suggestive themes, self-harm, profanity and other things not suitable for children.

Knudsen says the companies’ misrepresentations of the app’s age ratings, also made in public statements, affect how parents might police their children’s app usage.

“Just as a parent might determine which movies are appropriate for their children based on the ‘rating’ a movie receives (G, PG, PG-13, or R) so too do parents check the age rating of apps before allowing children to download and use them,” the complaint says.

The suit says those ratings and and the companies’ public statements are aimed at stopping parents who are unfamiliar with the app’s content from keeping their children from using the app.

In addition to the alleged violations of state consumer protection laws, it also claims the companies are violating the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting personal information from children under age 13 without getting informed parental consent as required by law while allegedly directing its marketing toward children.

The suit asks a judge to allow the state to seek up to $10,000 for each violation of the Montana Consumer Protection Act allegedly committed by Instagram and Meta.

“Internal documents leaked to the public show that Meta was aware of the harms it inflicted on minors, but instead of taking corrective action, the company continued to tell the parents it was a safe product for their kids to use,” Knudsen said in a statement. “I am committed to safeguarding the rights and protection of Montanans; social media companies must comply with our state laws and prioritize the safety and privacy of our citizens.”

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.

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