(Bloomberg) — Leaders from five social media platforms were admonished by lawmakers at a US Senate hearing to discuss child online safety, with lawmakers assailing the companies’ past efforts to protect kids and pressing them to support new legislation.
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The 21-member Senate Judiciary Committee called the chief executives of Meta Platforms Inc., X, Snap Inc., Discord Inc. and TikTok to Washington in an effort to hold them accountable for their platforms’ impact on teenagers and children.
“These companies must be reined in, or the worst is yet to come,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the committee, said. Singling out Meta Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, Graham said he had “blood on his hands,” detailing a story of a child who was a victim of sexual exploitation. “You have a product that’s killing people,” he added. His comments were met with an uproar of applause and cheers from advocates in attendance.
Congress has been under pressure to respond to mounting criticism of the spread of child sexual abuse material online and the tech companies’ failure to protect children from predators. They have also raised concerns about the effect social media use has on young people’s mental health.
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, convened the hearing to generate momentum for the committee’s legislation targeting online child sexual exploitation. The highly anticipated event kicked off with reporters, industry officials, and youth online safety advocates sitting in a packed Capitol Hill hearing room.
Durbin opened the session by playing a video of victims of online child sexual exploitation sharing their stories, blaming social media companies for failing to protect them and urging Congress to take action.
“I was sexually exploited on Facebook,” said one victim. “I was sexually exploited on Instagram,” another said in the video.
Durbin didn’t mince words, saying “Discord has been used to groom, abduct, and abuse children. Meta’s Instagram helped connect and promote a network of pedophiles, Snapchat’s disappearing messages have been coopted by criminals who financially sextort young victims.
“Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, and their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk,” Durbin said in his opening remarks.
Lawmakers have examined children’s online safety in previous hearings, but Wednesday marks the first time Congress convened the executives to discuss the matter as part of a broader effort to move legislation forward.
Durbin acknowledged Congress’s responsibility, which has repeatedly failed to set regulations on social media companies over the years.
Accusations have been growing that the companies knowingly allowed underage users on their sites and ignored concerns their products could be harmful to teens’ mental health. TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, are facing lawsuits in California that claim the companies were negligent and ignored the potential harms their platforms created for teens.
Zuckerberg, who was directly questioned more than most of his peers in more than two hours of testimony, pledged that Meta will work with lawmakers, parents and other tech companies to make those platforms safer for teenagers. Meta has faced significant pushback over the years for its child safety practices and Zuckerberg explained on Wednesday the many tools that Meta has rolled out to protect young people, including parental controls that set time limits on app usage, notifications to review privacy settings, and restrictions on interactions with adults.
But the senators weren’t buying it. Zuckerberg, no stranger to the congressional hot seat, was aggressively grilled by several senators. Josh Hawley of Missouri asked the co-founder of Facebook if he would personally compensate victims of sexual exploitation on his sites.
“You’re a billionaire,” Hawley said. ”Will you set up a victim’s compensation fund with your money?”
Hawley asked Zuckerberg whether he’s apologized to victims and their families who have been exploited on his platforms — including the ones in the audience today. At Hawley’s urging, the CEO stood up, turned around and addressed the audience.
“I am sorry for everything that you have all gone through,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered, and this is why we invest so much, and are going to continue doing industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things that your families have had to suffer.”
The room grew tense as Senator Ted Cruz of Texas spoke over Zuckerberg when pressing him on Meta’s practices to combat child sexual abuse material.
“Do you want me to answer your questions?,” a visibly flustered Zuckerberg responded. “Then give me some time to speak then.”
Zuckerberg also faced questions about the fact that he rejected requests from his top leadership in 2021 to expand teams overseeing child safety and well-being, according to documents and emails released by Congress ahead of the hearing. In the hearing, Zuckerberg said Meta spent $5 billion last year on trust and safety.
Zuckerberg touted Meta’s recent pitch for federal legislation that would require app stores to get parental approval for teens under the age of 16 to download an app. But Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a fierce critic of the tech industry, threw cold water the idea of placing the onus of responsibility on app stores, not social media platforms.
Earlier: Tech CEOs Brace for Senate Scrutiny on Children’s Safety
Linda Yaccarino, the CEO of X, Snap’s Evan Spiegel and Jason Citron of Discord have never testified in Congress before Wednesday. Each of their companies has been under fire over reports of child sexual abuse material on their platforms, and the executives explained their methods to detect and remove such content.
“Coincidentally, several of these companies implemented common sense child safety improvements within the last week,” Durbin said, generating a laugh in the room. TikTok CEO Shou Chew later took a subtle jab at his peers pointing to his company’s long-standing safety policies. “We didn’t do them last week.”
Yaccarino, who took on the CEO role at X last June, endorsed one of the committee’s bipartisan bills that has yet to reach the Senate floor for a vote. Known as the STOP CSAM Act, the bill intends to empower victims of child sex abuse by allowing them to sue social media companies. The bill would also make it easier for victims to request the removal of child sex abuse material from online platforms.
“As a mother, this is personal, and I share the sense of urgency,” Yaccarino said. “It is time for a federal standard to criminalize the sharing of non consensual intimate material.”
Unlike other social media companies that focus on courting young users, Yaccarino highlighted X’s older customer base. “X is not the platform of choice for children and teens,” she said, adding that teens are automatically set to a default private setting.
Yaccarino and Spiegel both voiced support for the Kids Online Safety Act, though the X chief stopped short of an endorsement, which Snap has done. The bill, championed by Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican on the committee, and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, would create legal requirements for tech companies to keep children safe from content that promotes violence, sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
“No legislation is perfect, but some rules of the road are better than none,” Spiegel said.
Yaccarino said the Kids Online Safety Act “should continue to progress and we will support the continuation to engage with it and ensure the protections of the freedom of speech.”
TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance Ltd. of China, has also faced backlash over children’s safety and Chew defended his company’s practices to protect young users.
TikTok “largely” supports the STOP CSAM act, Chew said, but the company has questions about how it would be implemented.
Hawley also voiced concerns about TikTok’s ties to its Chinese-owned parent company, reiterating calls for a nationwide ban on the popular app.
Chew last appeared before a House committee nearly a year ago. As part of Chew’s testimony, TikTok pledged to spend $2 billion this year on trust and safety globally, as the popular video service crosses 170 million monthly active users in the US.
President Joe Biden, tech industry whistleblowers, parents, and teenagers themselves have repeatedly called on Congress to improve safety online as evidence suggests social media use could be worsening youngsters’ mental health. Yet legislative proposals have languished as tech and digital rights groups lobby against them, characterizing many of the measures as ineffective and dangerous for user privacy and safety.
“Why has it taken so long? Because Big Tech companies have an army of lobbyists and lawyers who have fought us every step of the way,” Blackburn said ahead of the hearing.
(Updates with Zuckerberg apology to audience)
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