Ireland slaps Instagram with record $400m fine over kids’ data

Instagram says the investigation resulting in the penalty focused on its old settings, which have since been updated.

Instagram app is seen on a smartphone in this illustration taken, July 13, 2021
The probe by Ireland's watchdog focused on how Instagram displayed the private information of users ages 13 to 17, including their email addresses and telephone numbers [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

Instagram has been fined heavily by Irish regulators after an inquiry revealed that the social media company mishandled the personal information of teenagers in violation of European Union data privacy standards.

The Republic of Ireland’s Data Protection Commission said via email Monday that it made a final decision last week to fine the company 405 million euros ($402m). The fine is the second biggest issued under the EU’s stringent privacy rules.

Instagram’s parent company Meta, which also owns Facebook, stated that while it had “engaged fully” with authorities throughout the inquiry, it disagreed with the way the sentence was determined and planned to appeal.

The Irish watchdog’s investigation centred on how Instagram displayed the personal details of users ages 13 to 17, including email addresses and phone numbers. The minimum age for Instagram users is 13.

The investigation began after a data scientist found that users, including those under 18, were switching to business accounts and had their contact information displayed on their profiles.

Users were apparently doing it to see statistics on how many likes their posts were getting after Instagram started removing the feature from personal accounts in some countries to help with users’ mental health.

Instagram said the inquiry focused on “old settings” that were updated more than a year ago, and it has since released new privacy features for teens, including automatically setting their accounts to private when they join.

“We’re continuing to carefully review the rest of the decision,” the company said.

Under the EU’s data privacy rules, the Irish watchdog is the lead regulator for many United States tech companies with European headquarters in Dublin.

Visitors take a selfie on the observation deck of the Shibuya Sky
Facebook documents last year revealed that the tech giant is very aware that its Instagram app is harmful to the mental health of young girls [File: Peter Case/USA Today Sports]

The watchdog has a raft of other inquiries into Meta-owned companies. Last year, it fined WhatsApp 225 million euros ($21.8m) for breaching rules on transparency about sharing people’s data with other Meta companies.

Last year, Instagram announced that it was pausing plans to develop an app for kids under 13 years of age.

There have been several probes in the US focusing on Instagram’s impact on young kids. The social media site has been accused of being a threat to children’s physical and mental health and exploiting youngsters in the interest of profit.

Meta has called the accusations false and has insisted that the claims demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of the facts.

Instagram also came under fire late last year after documents seen by The Wall Street Journal showed that Facebook knows Instagram can be toxic for young girls.

Source: Al Jazeera, AP