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Arkansas sues parent companies of Facebook and Instagram, TikTok

by Michael R. Wickline | March 29, 2023 at 12:05 p.m.
Attorney General Tim Griffin, left, addresses members of the media during a press conference at the Arkansas state Capitol alongside Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday, March 28, 2023 announcing plans to sue Facebook and Tiktok's parent companies Meta and Bytedance respectively. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

The state of Arkansas has filed a lawsuit against Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and two lawsuits against TikTok Inc. and its parent company, ByteDance, alleging violations of the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin announced Tuesday.

"We have to hold Big Tech companies accountable for pushing addictive platforms on our kids and exposing them to a world of inappropriate, damaging content," Sanders said in a news conference in the governor's conference room with Griffin at her side.

It's time for the state of Arkansas to take action, the Republican governor said.

"If President Biden and his congressional allies won't crack down on their friends in Silicon Valley, Arkansas will," Sanders said. "We are leading the charge on three lawsuits against TikTok and Meta. ... This lawsuit against Meta will be the first of its kind by any state anywhere in the country. They will pay for the damage that they are doing to our kids."

Griffin said the lawsuits against these social media companies are about misleading, misrepresentation and false statements, and ultimately deception.

The Republican attorney general filed the lawsuit against Meta Platforms in Polk County circuit court and the lawsuit alleges, among other things, the defendants are liable "for the manipulative and addicting features they deploy to hook young users and keep them on the platform and returning to the platform.

"In addition to features such as Instagram filters that encourage unhealthy body image ideals and promotional emails that encourage users to return to their platforms, Defendants deluge youth with instant notifications to induce users to return to the platform and re-engage with the platform when a user's activity drops," according to the lawsuit.

Griffin said in the court filing against Meta Platforms that the state seeks to hold the defendants accountable for "engaging in deceptive and unconscionable trade practices in violation of the Arkansas Deceptive Practices Trade Act, creating a public nuisance and unjustly enriching themselves at the expense of the State and its citizens."

Antigone Davis, head of safety for Meta, said Tuesday in a written statement that "We want to reassure every parent that we have their interests at heart in the work we're doing to provide teens with safe, supportive experiences online.

"We've developed more than 30 tools to support teens and their families, including tools that allow parents to decide when, and for how long, their teens use Instagram, age verification technology, automatically setting accounts belonging to those under 16 to private when they join Instagram, and sending notifications encouraging teens to take regular breaks," Davis said.

"We've invested in technology that finds and removes content related to suicide, self-injury or eating disorders before anyone reports it to us," Davis said. "These are complex issues, but we will continue working with parents, experts and regulators such as the state attorneys general to develop new tools, features and policies that meet the needs of teens and their families."

After she was sworn in as governor Jan. 10, Sanders signed an executive order barring the installation of, connection to, or use of TikTok on any state network or state-issued information or communications technology device, including all desktop computers, laptop computers, tablets and mobile phones by any entity overseen by either the director of the Office of State Procurement or the director of the Division of Information Systems.

In December, then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson tweeted out a Dec. 8 memo issued by Jonathan Askins, the state's chief technology officer, informing state employees that TikTok is prohibited on state devices and that it is not to be used on any devices connected to the state network unless for an authorized law enforcement or security purpose.

One of the lawsuits filed by Griffin against TikTok Inc. is in Union County and alleges, among other things, that TikTok "routinely exposes Arkansas consumers' data, without their knowledge, to access and exploitation by the Chinese government and the Communist Party.

"The Chinese government and Communist Party have demonstrated the intent and willingness to deceive public institutions, and to investigate, surveil, harass, and intimidate individuals outside of China, including in the United States," according to the lawsuit. "TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, has admitted to using data gathered through TikTok to surveil Americans."

Last week, TikTok CEO Shou Chew defended his company against a barrage of criticism from hostile U.S. lawmakers, repeatedly asserting the social platform's independence from its Chinese owners.

He said the video-sharing app's Beijing-based owner, ByteDance Ltd., is mostly owned by international investors and most of its board members are American.

"The bottom line is this is American data on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel," Chew told the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Federal lawmakers have argued that TikTok's opaque algorithms are easily susceptible to pro-Beijing messaging and have voiced concerns that TikTok's ownership makes it easy for the company to turn over user data to the Chinese government.

Chew also compared the steps that TikTok is taking to protect data security and the safety of young users with the practices of other big tech companies. He described the measures TikTok takes to verify the age of its users and enforce restrictions for children and teens as industry-leading.

The other lawsuit filed by Griffin against TikTok Inc. was filed in Cleburne County circuit court and alleges, among other things, that TikTok has communicated to Arkansas consumers that "Alcohol, Tobacco and Drug References," "Sexual Content or Nudity," "Mature/Suggestive Themes" and "Profanity or Crude Humor" are "Infrequent/Mild" on the platform when these types of content are frequent and intense on the platform.

"Each of these representations is misleading and deceptive when standing alone," the lawsuit states. "Their cumulative effect is also misleading and deceptive. Anyone can visit TikTok's page in the App Store right now and see these representations listed as part of TikTok's age rating description."

Griffin said in the court filings that these lawsuits against TikTok Inc. are a consumer protection action brought to redress and restrain violations of the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practice Act under which the state seeks an order for an injunction, imposing civil penalties, restitution and other equitable relief that the state is entitled to against the defendants.

On March 9, Sanders announced her support for a bill that would require that social media companies verify users' age before giving them access to their site.

Under Senate Bill 396, dubbed "The Social Media Safety Act," social media users younger than 18 would have to seek parental permission to have an account.

The bill cleared the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, according to the General Assembly's website.

Sanders said she looks forward to the bill making it to her desk and signing the bill.

"Arkansas will be the best and safest place in the country for our kids to grow up," she said. "We will be a conservative blueprint for our states in the country."

Print Headline: State sues Facebook, TikTok parents over trade practices


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