Two U.S. senators warned Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg against alleged plans to target underage minors in a bid to salvage his all-or-nothing bet on the metaverse.
Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said Meta had earned itself a “documented track record of failure to protect children and teens” in a statement published on Thursday.
“We call on you to immediately halt Meta’s plan to bring teen users onto Horizon Worlds,” they said, referring to the virtual world that is offered as a free app.
The problem is that Zuckerberg has bet the proverbial farm on his metaverse ambitions.
According to the latest company figures, Meta’s Reality Labs division has lost a cumulative $26 billion since October 2020—a record $4.3 billion of which came in the fourth quarter alone.
Yet the Wall Street Journal reported in October that the user base of Horizon Worlds had been shrinking since last spring, with most not returning after the first month.
Aspirations to attract half a million users were revised down to 280,000 against an actual base that didn’t even crack the 200,000 mark.
In fact, the experience turned out to be so poor that Meta itself couldn’t persuade its own employees to plug themselves in.
Citing an internal memo, the Journal last month uncovered a plan for Zuckerberg to salvage his investment by lowering the age threshold from 18 to just 13 years.
This could raise a number of risks, including exposing underage minors to predators and abusers online.
.@Meta has completely lost the public’s trust and this latest attempt to bring kids onto the metaverse is just another flagrant attempt to exploit young people for profit. @SenBlumenthal and I are calling on Meta to halt this dangerous plan. pic.twitter.com/9IHwwdvPOM— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) March 2, 2023
“Meta has completely lost the public’s trust and this latest attempt to bring kids onto the metaverse is just another flagrant attempt to exploit young people for profit,” Markey posted to Twitter on Thursday.
Spokespeople for the social media giant, worth over $473 billion, could not be reached by Fortune for comment.
Meta opened up Horizon Worlds to the U.S. public in December 2021.
Only accessible via its virtual reality headsets, like the $400 Quest 2, it was initially restricted to U.S. and Canadian residents of 18 years or above. It has since been rolled out to users in the U.K., France, and Spain.
Zuckerberg is now planning to allow users into the community who have not purchased a Quest 2 headset, even though it was meant to be an immersive experience, in a bid to attract more people.
Before Horizon Worlds’ debut, Meta already knew its built-in safety protocols were either not working or not easily understood. In November 2021 a beta tester alerted the company to the fact she had been virtually groped.
“That’s good feedback still for us, because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and finable,” Vivek Sharma, VP of Horizon Worlds at the time, told The Verge (in August he left the company, replaced by Vishal Shah).
Markey’s partner, Senator Blumenthal, criticized Big Tech’s lacking accountability, citing the Gonzalez v. Google case currently being heard by the Supreme Court.
“Tech giants have long turned a blind eye to horrific harms and dangers on their platforms,” he wrote.
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