Wall Street Journal

By Jeff Horwitz

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators plans to introduce legislation that would require Meta Platforms Inc. and other social-media companies to provide outside researchers with data access.

The bill, to be announced Thursday by Sens. Chris Coons (D., Del.) Rob Portman (R., Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), would allow researchers to submit proposals to the National Science Foundation. If the NSF supports a proposal, social-media platforms would be required to furnish the needed data, subject to privacy protections that could include anonymizing it or "white rooms" in which researchers could review sensitive material.

The measure was prompted, Senate aides said, by disclosures in The Wall Street Journal that internal research by Meta, formerly known as Facebook Inc., showed its Instagram app is potentially harmful to young people, especially teen girls.

"That kind of research may not have ever seen the light of day" if not for the Journal's coverage, an aide to Mr. Coons said. "And we think it's the kind of research that needs to happen in order for us to have a real fleshed-out understanding of how these platforms are affecting us."

Access to research also came up at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday, where Instagram's top executive, Adam Mosseri, was asked to provide the research cited in the Journal, which was gathered by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen.

"These studies and research are really important for parents to make decisions," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), chairman of the Senate subcommittee on consumer protection.

Mr. Mosseri said he thinks researchers should have "regular access to meaningful data about social-media usage across the entire industry."

But he said he couldn't commit to releasing the research cited by the Journal because of privacy concerns, and that some of the information might have been destroyed under the company's data-retention policy. Mr. Mosseri also asserted that many young users find Instagram makes their lives better.

Mr. Portman said access to the information would be valuable to lawmakers who are considering legislation to restrict social-media platforms.

"Before answering any of those calls, Congress should take a step back to ensure that we are not legislating in the dark," Mr. Portman said.

The legislation would also give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to require regular disclosure of specific information by platforms, such as data about ad targeting.

The commission would also be able to require that platforms create basic research tools to study what content succeeds, similar to the basic design of the Meta-owned CrowdTangle.

The bill would also bar social-media platforms from blocking independent research initiatives. Both researchers and platforms would be given a legal safe harbor related to privacy concerns.