TEXAS, USA — Some Instagram face filters that were suspended in Texas last week have been reenabled.
Meta, the parent conglomerate of Instagram and Facebook, temporarily disabled augmented reality filters —3D overlays that change a user’s appearance or add accessories such as hats, facial hair, or cartoonish dog ears and snouts — on its platforms across the state last week. Meta said at the time it would provide a way for Texans to reactivate the blocked features. Other Instagram filters that change only lighting or add hues to photos remained available to use.
The move came two months after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the California-based company, saying some of the company’s practices and features violated Texans’ privacy. The lawsuit is part of the ongoing conflicts between Texas officials and social media companies.
On Wednesday, the filters were back online, but only after Meta added an option that asks users to agree to the use of the features, which it said "estimate the location of parts of your face." Meta spokesperson Jennifer Martinez told The Texas Tribune that users will need to upgrade to the latest version of the Instagram app to access the opt-in experience.
According to Paxton's lawsuit, around 20.5 million Texans used Facebook as of last year. Paxton's lawsuit says Meta violated a Texas law that prohibits the way certain biometrics — physiological characteristics such as fingerprints, eye identifiers and, in this case, facial features — are collected. The attorney general said the suit could result in hundreds of billions of dollars in civil penalties for Meta. The lawsuit also accuses the company of deceptive trade practices.
Meta officials said it stopped its face recognition program last year and planned to delete the data of over 1 billion users. The decision came after the Federal Trade Commission fined Meta in 2019 for a record-breaking $5 billion over consumer privacy rights violations.
Paxton alleged that the company used data from Facebook and Instagram filters to power its facial tracking software — a claim that Meta denies — and asked a state court to ensure that the company preserves relevant data for the suit, which has not yet reached trial.
Meta press representatives dispute that its facial recognition features have anything to do with its tagging software but said the move to temporarily suspend the filters in Texas and Illinois was done to “prevent meritless and distracting litigation” that is “based on a mischaracterization of how our features work.” The company emphasized that the Instagram filters it suspended in Texas do not use facial recognition software.
“The technology we use to power augmented reality effects like avatars and filters is not facial recognition or any technology covered by the Texas and Illinois laws, and is not used to identify anyone,” Meta said in a statement.
A group of attorneys in Illinois were the first to sue Facebook over its collection of biometric data back in 2015 in a class-action lawsuit. The group reached a settlement with the social media giant last month for $650 million. Users who participated in the class action will receive $200 to $400 after checks were sent out on May 9.
Paxton filed his suit in state court in Harrison County on the first day of early voting in the March primary as he vied for the Republican nomination to keep his position as attorney general. Paxton has been under indictment since 2015 and is being probed by the FBI into how he runs his office, but has denied any criminal wrongdoing. He will face Land Commissioner George P. Bush in a May 24 runoff election.
This isn’t the only arena in which Texas has targeted social media companies. One recent win for Republican lawmakers came Wednesday when a federal appeals court reinstated a Republican-backed Texas law that prohibits large social media companies from banning users over their political viewpoints, a reaction to what Republicans call anti-conservative bias.
Conservatives renewed criticism of social media companies and targeted them in legislation after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on inciting violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This story was originally published in the Texas Tribune here.