Zuckerberg responded to the onslaught of grief by rising from his chair in an extraordinary moment to apologize to admit Meta’s wrongdoing after facing pressure from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” he said to families gathered in the hearing. “No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered, and this is why we invested so much.”
The tense exchange punctuated an unusually poignant session that spanned nearly four hours as Zuckerberg, TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew, X’s Linda Yaccarino, Snap’s Evan Spiegel and Discord’s Jason Citron sought to reassure a skeptical Senate of their commitment to combating child exploitation online.
Congress has held dozens of hearings with tech executives in recent years, but the emotional session highlighted lawmakers’ increasing desperation — and willingness to wield the power of spectacle to galvanize efforts to pass new protections for children.
Children’s online safety legislation has stagnated for years, and lawmakers flashed growing frustration Wednesday over Congress’s glacial pace and inability to take action on the issue.
“There’s been so much talk at these hearings and popcorn throwing and the like, and I just want to get this stuff done,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said. “I’m so tired of this.”
Child sex images and videos are more widely available than ever, according to data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit that tracks such material for the U.S. government. The organization said reports of the content on online platforms grew from 32 million in 2022 to a record high of more than 36 million in 2023. It’s found a persistent foothold on major tech platforms like Facebook, despite years of efforts to eliminate it.
Senators convened the hearing — focused on child sexual abuse material, or CSAM — amid a groundswell of support for stronger protections to prevent children from becoming exposed to harmful content online or addicted to major platforms. But the session did little to shed light on how the proposals under discussion could get signed into law in the near term.
Senate Judiciary Committee leaders said they hoped the hearing would help build momentum for a package of bills aimed at curbing child abuse material online, including by allowing victims to sue companies for facilitation and by making it more difficult for platforms to dismiss such lawsuits. The latter seeks to narrow industry protections afforded under Section 230, the besieged legal shield that immunizes digital services from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content, which senators repeatedly attacked Wednesday.
The panel advanced the bills with broad bipartisan support in May, but the measures have since stalled with no clear timetable for them to be taken up in the full chamber.
While Congress has looked on, states have passed an array of laws to either require tech companies to build more stringent privacy and safety features into their products, or to bar teens from accessing social media altogether unless they get their parents’ approval. But many of the most sweeping measures are facing legal challenges from the tech industry or have been halted in court, which child safety advocates say has underscored the need for congressional action.
Lawmakers acknowledged Wednesday that their own failure to act has contributed to the ongoing problems with child abuse on the internet. “Do we bear some of the blame? Absolutely,” Graham said after the hearing.
But he argued that with the support of those in attendance whose loved ones’ deaths were linked to the platforms, Congress could still help rectify the matter.
Minutes before the CEOs appeared to testify, the families in the audience made their presence felt. Dozens of grief-stricken people held up pictures of family members and friends who have died, some by suicide, others after facing bullying or exposure to drugs online. The emotional show of force brought an otherwise rowdy hearing room to a silent standstill.
Throughout the hearing, the families and other child safety advocates jeered as the executives sought to reassure lawmakers of their commitment to the issue and applauded as the senators pledged to hold the companies accountable.
“To all those who held a photo today, if we’re able to be successful, your loved one did not die in vain,” Graham later told reporters. “My goal is to make sure that your suffering will end other people’s potential suffering.”
The session marked the first time several of the executives testified on Capitol Hill, including X’s Yaccarino. But lawmakers throughout the session repeatedly focused on Zuckerberg, who has appeared before Congress more than any other Silicon Valley chief over the past half-decade.
In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg touted investments in safety and recent policy changes to give parents more control over their children’s data, while calling on Congress to force app store giants — like Google and Apple — to play a bigger part in vetting children’s ages online. Washington Post reporting this week revealed that the company’s parental surveillance features are poorly used.
Yaccarino, the first executive for X to testify since Elon Musk took over the platform formerly known as Twitter, highlighted plans to stand up a new safety team in Texas and automate some of the company’s reports to government that flag child abuse material. TikTok’s Chew, meanwhile, repeatedly emphasized that despite a common perception that his platform’s audience skews young, the average age for users is over 30.
The commitments did not impress the combative panel, with lawmakers repeatedly pressing the CEOs to take a firm stance on the bills under consideration in the Senate. The executives at times followed through, with Snap’s Spiegel endorsing a bipartisan bill requiring tech companies to offer stronger privacy and safety protections to children by default, and Yaccarino backing a measure led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that would open companies up to liability for facilitating child abuse.
Some of the parents in attendance also said they were unmoved by the companies’ remarks, including Zuckerberg’s public mea culpa, which they described as disingenuous in interviews at a rally after the hearing.
“He had a gun to his head,” said Deb Schmill, holding a portrait of her daughter Becca, who died at age 18 of fentanyl poisoning from a pill she bought through social media. “He has made some choices where he has not prioritized the safety of children, and what’s happened here is a result of that.”
Julianna Arnold, whose daughter Coco died at age 17 of fentanyl poisoning from a pill she bought on Instagram, said she came to the hearing because the only way to feel better was to help other people.
But Arnold sees the issue intensifying. The profile of the drug dealer who sold Coco the pill remained on Instagram for four months after her daughter’s death, and she recently told police that the dealer had returned to the social network with a new account.
“This is only growing. This is only escalating. It’s not going to turn around unless Congress does something,” she said. “We see what we’re getting out of the social media CEOs: zero.”
Drew Harwell and Heather Kelly contributed to this report.