CEOs from TikTok, X, Meta talk online child safety at Senate hearing | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey

Audience members heckle and groan during Zuckerberg’s opener

Some audience members in the Senate hearing room groaned and shouted through Zuckerberg’s opening statements.

When the Meta CEO said that “the existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health,” murmurs spread through the room.

As Zuckerberg acknowledged the parents of dead children in the audience, one person shouted “NO THANKS.”

‘A lot of attention’ on hearing

This packed hearing is the biggest audience Durbin has ever seen in the committee room in his 22 years on the panel.

“I’d also like to take a moment to to acknowledge that this hearing has gathered a lot of attention,” Durbin said. “As we expected, we have a large audience, the largest I’ve seen in this room, today.”

This is Zuckerberg’s eighth time testifying before Congress

Next up is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg is a frequent guest on Capitol Hill, having testified on issues like censorship, data privacy, and election integrity.

Discord CEO Jason Citron said in his opening statements that encryption on his platform would disrupt the platform’s child safety efforts.

The statement touches a hot-button issue in the tech community, balancing privacy via technologies like end-to-end encryption and the ability to assist law enforcement and do its own proactive scanning.

In 2023, Meta rolled out end-to-end encryption on Messenger, causing controversy among child safety advocates.

SNAP CEO Evan Spiegel plans to announce that SNAP will not further roll out encryption on its platform in ways that would disrupt scanning its platforms for child sexual abuse material.

Discord CEO says platform is about having fun with friends

In his opening remarks, Discord CEO Jason Citron shared how video games enriched his life as a kid, and how his platform aims to do that for other gamers.

“I’ve been playing video games since I was 5 years old. And as a kid, it’s how I had fun and found friendship,” he said. “We built Discord so that anyone could build friendships playing video games from Minecraft to Wordle and everything in between.”

As a father of two, he said he wants Discord to be a platform his own kids “use and love, and I want them to be safe.”

He emphasized that the platform has a “zero tolerance policy on child sexual abuse material.”

CEOs are sworn in. Here come the opening statements.

From left, Jason Citron, CEO of Discord, Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap, Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, are sworn-in as they testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 31, 2024.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

AI gets its first mention from Graham

Graham says “AI is just starting.” It’s the first of what will likely be many mentions of AI today.

AI has been a huge topic of concern lately, from AI-generated news spreading misinformation among young people on YouTube to sexually explicit deepfakes of celebrities like Taylor Swift gaining traction on X.

Sexually explicit AI has gotten so serious that a bipartisan effort is underway in the Senate to give victims the ability to sue makers of such AI-generated images.

Yesterday, a group of senators introduced the Disrupt Explicit Forged Images and Non-Consensual Edits Act (also known as the DEFIANCE Act), which aims to give those victims a form of recourse.

What is Section 230?

The lawmakers have already brought up Section 230 a lot this morning. So what is it?

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act shields tech companies from liability for the content posted on their platforms by third parties. It has come under scrutiny from lawmakers in recent years.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg called for changes to Section 230 in March 2021.

“Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it,” Zuckerberg said in his opening remarks, according to written testimony released on the House Committee website at the time.

In his opening remarks, Sen. Graham emphasized “it is now time to repeal section 230.”

Graham: ‘Mr. Zuckerberg… you have blood on your hands’

In his opening statement, Graham called out several CEOs by name.

“Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don’t mean it to be so but you have blood on your hands,” Graham said to applause in the room. “You have a product you have a product that’s killing people.”

Graham acknowledged that he uses Meta products, adding that social media companies need to deal with the issues they’ve unleashed.

In his opening statement, Ranking Member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said that “while Washington is certainly broken, there is a ray of hope” in bipartisan support for increased child safety regulation for social media sites.

Graham later jokes about how even he and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., agree.

“Now, Elizabeth Warren and Lindsey Graham have almost nothing in common I promised her I would say that publicly,” he said.

But the two both “see an abuse here that needs to be dealt with.”

Durbin jabbed at tech platforms’ last minute changes around child safety ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, jokingly calling the changes coincidental.

The line in Durbin’s opening remarks yielded chuckles from audience members.

Ahead of the hearing, numerous platforms expressed new interest in pieces of legislation and regulation, while previously being slow to adopt such proposed changes.

Durbin said in 2013, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children received 1,380 cyber tips per day about child sexual abuse material.

A decade later, those tips have skyrocketed to 100,000 reports per day, Durbin said.

Lawmakers began the hearing promptly at 10 a.m. by showing the room a video about young people sharing how they have been impacted by social media exploitation.

As Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg entered the hearing room, parents holding photos of their dead children audibly hissed.

Zuckerberg and Meta have faced intense criticism over the years around child safety issues. In the audience are some parents who say that Instagram contributed to their childrens’ suicide or exploitation.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, arrives to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," on Jan. 31, 2024.
Mark Zuckerberg arrives in the hearing room today.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP – Getty Images

Hearing room waiting for tech CEOs full of parents and advocates

The hearing room where Senators will grill the CEOs is full of child safety advocates and parents who say their children were killed or affected in part by social media platforms.

Many parents brought photos of their children to hold as the senators question the CEOs, and many are wearing blue ribbons saying “STOP Online Harms! Pass KOSA!” KOSA is the Kids Online Safety Act, which would create a duty of care for social media companies.

Relatives hold pictures of children before the start of the "Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis," on Jan. 31, 2024.
Relatives hold pictures of children before the start of the “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” on Wednesday.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP – Getty Images

Companies have been reluctant to endorse such legislation. This month, SNAP was the first platform to suggest that it was open to the passage of KOSA. In her opening remarks, X CEO Linda Yaccarino will offer support for the bill among others.

According to a source close to the Senate Judiciary Committee, a large amount of seats allocated to Senate officers were given to parents.

Other seats not reserved for members of the public were reserved for child safety advocates, who have worked for years to address child safety issues at social media companies.

Where’s YouTube? It’s a huge part of where kids spend time online

The video platform is noticeably absent from today’s hearing, although it is a popular destination for kids online. 

YouTube, which is owned by Alphabet (which also owns Google), previously came under fire after users found disturbing videos featuring children and comments from child predators under minors’ posts. Advertisers pulled out of the platform after they found their ads alongside inappropriate content. As a result, the company disabled comments on videos with kids and launched a “classifier” to monitor comments for predatory behavior in 2019. 

YouTube hasn’t had any high-profile issues with child safety since they cracked down on these commenters. The company’s dedicated family-friendly site YouTube Kids has been deemed “mostly safe” by children’s media nonprofit Common Sense.

YouTube’s policy prohibits content that could potentially endanger children, including videos that sexualize minors, encourage cyberbullying or promote dangerous activities. It also age-restricts videos that feature sexual themes, profanity or harmful acts that kids might imitate.

I think the most talked about “who is not here” from my POV has been Apple.

It will be interesting if Meta and others try to shift more of the focus to “platform players” like Apple iOS and Google Android regarding age-verification.

Another thought on who else could have been here: Amazon’s Twitch. The platform has been called out before for child-grooming-and-exploitation problems in the past. And it’s a huge platform that’s very popular with kids.

The CEOs of Discord, Snap, X and TikTok have made their way into the hearing room.

Reporters lob questions, but none are answered.

Installation mocks “Big Tech”

An installation against "Big Tech" depicts Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, and Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, outside the Capitol on Jan. 31, 2024.
Julia Nikhinson / AFP – Getty Images

An installation criticizing “Big Tech” depicts Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, and Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, outside the Capitol today.

Even Elmo is feeling the social media strain

Thousands of people have been unloading their life problems on Elmo this week after the red Muppet posed a casual question on X: “How is everybody doing?”

Not well, it seems.

In fact, the question, which was posted to X on Monday, opened the floodgates to a deluge of internet users eager to vent to the children’s show character that had somehow signed himself up to be the internet’s newest therapist.

“Elmo I’m suffering from existential dread over here,” a user replied.

Read the full story here.

Kids’ online safety takes center stage at Senate tech hearing

There are many proposed bills in the Senate aimed at protecting children on social media sites. Durbin says he sees bipartisan support for a lot of the ideas.

“To think this diverse Senate Judiciary Committee, would have a unanimous vote — every Democrat and every Republican supporting these five or six bills — tells you that we can come together on something that is so compelling,” he said. 

He also says this is personal for him. He knows there will be many families in the room today who’ve lost children after being harmed on social media.

“Every time I see these families that have gone through this, I put myself in their shoes and say ‘OK, as a father, as a grandfather what would you think if your grandson or granddaughter just gave up their life because of the irresponsibility and danger of these media platforms?’ I mean it’s personal.”

What to expect at today’s hearing

Senators are expected to grill executives of TikTok, Meta (which owns Instagram and Facebook), Discord, X (formerly Twitter) and Snap about what efforts they have made to help stop the exploitation of kids online.

Efforts to regulate social media continue to ramp up across the U.S. amid concerns from some parents that the platforms don’t do enough to keep their kids safe online. 

Many of the platforms have said they don’t tolerate child sexual exploitation on their platforms, and they point to various tools they already offer as examples of their proactive methods.  

“The bottom line is that we will never have what we want in this lifetime: our daughter back. So we’re here advocating for change,” said Tony Roberts, whose daughter died by suicide after, her parents say, she viewed a simulated hanging video on social media.

Ready the full story here.

Internal Meta emails that Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., acquired will be used in questioning to drive home their argument that Meta has not done all it can to help keep kids safe on their platform.

In November, a Meta whistleblower alleged the company had failed to protect teens.

Durbin says hearing is ‘long overdue’

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill, tells us this hearing, featuring five CEOs of the most popular social media apps, is “long overdue.”

The subject of the hearing today is child sexual exploitation though he expects other issues will certainly come up. 

“Terrible things are happening,” Durbin told us. “The numbers that come back to this tell us the exploitation of children are growing by leaps and bounds. What are we doing about it? We’re clinging to old law that which basically exempts this industry from liability.”

The committee had to issue subpoenas to get three of the CEOs to attend today (Snapchat, Discord and X). Durbin says he was amazed they had to send U.S. Marshals to Discord and X because they refused to cooperate.

“They must think they’re so far above the law it doesn’t matter,” he said. 

His biggest question today? One suggested by his daughter who has 12-year-old twins.

“She said ‘Dad, ask these executives how they protect their own kids?’”

It’s not even 9 a.m. yet and the room is already starting to fill with journalists. Nameplates for the five CEOs were just placed in front of the seats facing the senators.

Senate Judiciary Hearing into social media child sexual exploitation in Washington on Jan. 31, 2024.
Kate Snow / NBC News

There is a line outside the room for those hoping to get a seat inside. We don’t know exactly how the CEOs will enter this large hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building but hope they may pass our cameras. We’re aware that there are other back routes for them to enter as well. 

Parents of kids harmed through social media will be in attendance

Sitting in the front row of the hearing room today we expect to see 20 parents wearing black and holding photos of their children. More parents will be behind them.

All of them lost kids after something happened on a social media site — whether harassment, sexual exploitation, drug sales leading to fentanyl overdoses or other issues. 

Sam Chapman lost his son Sammy in 2021. I first spoke with him and his wife, Laura Berman, just days afterward, and their grief was palpable and heartbreaking. 

A dealer connected with Sammy on Snapchat and gave him a pill containing a deadly dose of fentanyl. He died in his bedroom.

Sam Chapman reached out to many of the parents who will attend today to make sure they’d be present in the room. They all want to send a message to these CEOs. 

“We’ve been asked to give questions to the senators. So what we’re hoping is that there’s some very pointed questions about why they’re letting so many children die on their platforms, why they’re letting so many children be abused on their platforms, without changing,” Chapman told me last night.

I asked him what he personally wants to hear today.

“I want to know how they can sleep at night,” Chapman said, “knowing that they’re accessory to murder, over and over again.”

Snap issues support for KOSA

Ahead of the hearing, Snap issued its support for the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA.

“Many of the provisions in KOSA are consistent with our existing safeguards: we set teens’ accounts to the strictest privacy settings by default, provide additional privacy and safety protections for teens, offer in-app parental tools and reporting tools, and limit the collection and storage of personal information,” a spokesperson for the platform said in an email statement.

Snap CEO Evan Spiegel is among the five CEOs who will testify.

TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew returns to Congress

Last March, when a potential TikTok ban was being floated by lawmakers and the Biden administration, the platform’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, testified before lawmakers in a hearing that lasted roughly five hours.

Chew spoke before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing titled “TikTok: How Congress Can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms.” 

Members grilled the CEO about the Chinese-owned platform, citing concerns about privacy for Americans’ data, protections for children online and TikTok’s connection to the Chinese Communist Party.

In his opening statement, Chew emphasized TikTok is safe and secure and that it shouldn’t be banned.

Chew will appear before Congress again today, this time to specifically address child exploitation and safety concerns alongside other tech CEOs.

Read NBC News’ investigation on Discord

Discord, which launched in 2015, quickly emerged as a hub for online gamers, growing through the pandemic. It has since become a destination for communities devoted to topics as varied as crypto trading, YouTube gossip and K-pop.

In a 2023 review of international, national and local criminal complaints, news articles and law enforcement communications published since Discord was founded, NBC News identified 35 cases over the past six years in which adults were prosecuted on charges of kidnapping, grooming or sexual assault that allegedly involved communications on the platform.

Experts have suggested that Discord’s young user base, decentralized structure and multimedia communication tools, along with its recent growth in popularity, have made it a particularly attractive location for people looking to exploit children.  

Ahead of the hearing, a spokesperson for Discord said that it has a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual abuse and that it uses a mix of proactive and reactive tools to moderate the platform. 

“Over 15% of our workforce is dedicated to trust and safety full time. We prioritize issues that present the highest real-world harm to our users and the platform, including child sexual abuse material,” the spokesperson said.

Read more of NBC News’ reporting on Discord here.

X says it is ‘not the platform of choice for children and minors’

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, X published a blog post saying the platform has “zero tolerance for Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), and we are determined to make X inhospitable for actors who seek to exploit minors.”

X also said that the platform, formerly known as Twitter, is “not the platform of choice for children and minors.”

“Users between 13-17 account for less than 1% of our U.S daily users,” the blog post states.

X CEO Linda Yaccarino, a former NBCUniversal executive who was announced as the platform’s new CEO in May, will testify before lawmakers for the first time.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been grilled by lawmakers before

Mark Zuckerberg has been in the hot seat before.

Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, has faced criticism surrounding how it handles problematic content targeting younger users.

Last year, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that Meta knew Instagram created significant mental health issues for its teenage users, citing internal documents.

In October, a bipartisan group of 42 attorneys general sued Meta, alleging features on Facebook and Instagram are addictive and are aimed at kids and teens.

In a blog post published Thursday, Meta said it wants teens to have “age-appropriate experiences on our apps.” 

The company said it has developed more than 30 tools to help teens and their parents cultivate safe experiences on its platforms and that it spent “over a decade developing policies and technology to address content and behavior that breaks our rules.”

Here are the tech CEOs that are testifying

  • Jason Citron, CEO of Discord
  • Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta
  • Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap
  • Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok
  • Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X


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