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Podcast: Tech CEOs Face the US Senate on Child Safety | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey


Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

On Wednesday, January 31st, the US Senate Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.” The CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X, Discord and Snap were called to the Capitol to answer questions from lawmakers on their efforts to protect children from sexual exploitation, drug trafficking, dangerous content, and other online harms. Gabby Miller reported on the hearing from New York, and Haajrah Gilani reported from Washington D.C.

Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Haajrah Gilani:

I’m going to record if that’s okay.

Todd Minor:

Oh yeah.

Haajrah Gilani:

Could you explain to me a little bit more about what brought you here today for this hearing and this rally?

Todd Minor:

Well, since Matthew passed in 2019, we started a nonprofit in his name, Matthew E. Minor Awareness Foundation, and then it wasn’t until recently we actually award scholarships…

Justin Hendrix:

You’re listening to the voices of Haajrah Gilani and Todd Minor. Haajrah is a master’s student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the Medill Investigative Lab, she was at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Wednesday reporting for Tech Policy Press on a Senate judiciary committee hearing on the subject of “Big tech and the online child exploitation crisis.” Todd is one of the parents she spoke to. His son Matthew died at the age of 12 after participating in a TikTok challenge.

Todd Minor:

He was a wonderful child, he lit up the room. He was always, “Hey, let’s go here.” We did the extreme zip lining and everything. He was just fun…

Justin Hendrix:

Todd was one of the many parents and advocates who gathered in and around the capitol to make their voices heard during the hearing.

Justin Hendrix:

In today’s episode, we’re going to hear some segments of the hearing and discuss whether it is likely to result in legislation. And to help make sense of things, I’m joined by Gabby Miller in New York.

Gabby Miller:

My name is Gabby Miller and I’m a staff writer at Tech Policy Press.

Justin Hendrix:

So Gabby, what went down in the Capitol this week?

Gabby Miller:

So on Wednesday, January 31st, the Senate judiciary convened and hosted 5 high profile CEOs from Discord, X, Snapchat, TikTok and Meta. Most notably missing from that list was Google, and you could also argue that Apple and Microsoft probably should have been there as well.

Justin Hendrix:

There was a lot of theater around this hearing, including the drama around whether the CEOs would voluntarily testify. A couple of them supposedly didn’t come willingly.

Gabby Miller:

So Meta and TikTok both voluntarily agreed to testify before the Judiciary Committee, but Discord, Snap and X were subpoenaed and the committee described it as weeks of repeated refusals.

Justin Hendrix:

Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois and the chairman of the committee mentioned it during his opening remarks.

Sen. Dick Durbin:

I will note for the record that Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Chew are appearing voluntarily. I’m disappointed that our other witnesses did not offer that same degree of cooperation. Mr. Citron, Mr. Spiegel and Ms. Yaccarino are here pursuant to subpoenas. And Mr. Citron only accepted service of his subpoena after US Marshals were sent to Discord’s headquarters at taxpayers’ expense. I hope this is not a sign of your commitment or lack of commitment to addressing the serious issue before us.

Justin Hendrix:

Gabby, who else was in the room?

Gabby Miller:

Sitting behind the CEOs, there was actually a group of survivors and survivors families and they were all holding up pictures of people they knew that had lost their lives.

Justin Hendrix:

Now, this is not the first hearing that lawmakers have had on online child safety.

Gabby Miller:

No, not even close. I think since 2017 there’s been around 40.

Justin Hendrix:

Did the senators have a particular focus during the hearing? Did any of the witnesses get more questions than the others?

Gabby Miller:

Wednesday was a pile on for Mark Zuckerberg and in some ways make sense that Mark Zuckerberg got the majority of the questions. Was it at times berating? Perhaps. But also there were genuine lines of questionings at Mark Zuckerberg. We just know more about the harms that are caused on Meta’s platforms, primarily Facebook and Instagram, just because there’s been so many internal documents leaked from Facebook whistleblowers. As a result, there’s a bunch of litigation that has come out and those documents have been unredacted. So a lot of the stuff that’s come out of discovery is now included in suits like the state’s attorney’s general suits. That’s about 42 states. Attorney generals filed suits against Meta and Mark Zuckerberg for getting children and teens hooked on its platform because they knew that they had a lifetime value that they would profit off of it.

Justin Hendrix:

We got some new information just hours before the hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee released a tranche of emails from Meta. Here’s Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn describing what’s in them.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn:

And in the emails that we’ve got from 2021 that go from August to November, there is the staff plan that is being discussed in Antigone Davis, Nick Clegg, Cheryl Sandberg, Chris Cox, Alex Schultz, Adam Mosseri are all on this chain of emails on the wellbeing plan. And then we get to one, Nick did email Mark for emphasis, to emphasize his support for the package, but it sounds like it lost out to various other pressures and priorities.

Justin Hendrix:

Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina and the committee’s ranking member also referenced the emails in his remarks.

Sen. Lindsey Graham:

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. You have a product that’s killing people. When we had cigarettes killing people, we did something about it. Maybe not enough. You’re going to talk about guns. We have the ATF. Nothing here. There’s not a damn thing anybody can do about it. You can’t be sued. Now, Senator Blumenthal and Blackburn who’ve been like the dynamic duo here, have found emails from your company where they warned you about this stuff and you decided not to hire 45 people that could do a better job of policing this. So the bottom line is you can’t be sued. You should be. And these emails would be great for punitive damages, but the courtroom is closed to every American abused by all the companies in front of me. Of all the people in America, we could give blanket liability protection too, this would be the last group I would pick.

Justin Hendrix:

So Gabby, you’re right, the senators are definitely focusing on Zuckerberg.

Gabby Miller:

Yeah.

Justin Hendrix:

I guess the moment that drew the most headlines came after a string of questions from Senator Josh Hawley, the Republican from Missouri. Hawley actually elicited an apology from Zuckerberg who stood up and delivered it to the parents in the audience.

Sen. Josh Hawley:

Do you know who’s sitting behind you? You’ve got families from across the nation whose children are either severely harmed or gone and you don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about steps that you took, the fact that you didn’t fire a single person. Let me ask you this. Let me ask you this. Have you compensated any of the victims?

Mark Zuckerberg:

Sorry?

Sen. Josh Hawley:

Have you compensated any of the victims? These girls, have you compensated them?

Mark Zuckerberg:

I don’t believe so.

Sen. Josh Hawley:

Why not? Don’t you think they deserve some compensation for what your platform has done? Help with counseling services, help with dealing with the issues that your services caused?

Mark Zuckerberg:

Our job is to make sure that we build tools to help keep people safe.

Sen. Josh Hawley:

Are you going to compensate them?

Mark Zuckerberg:

Senator, our job and what we take seriously is making sure that we build industry leading tools to find harmful content…

Sen. Josh Hawley:

To make money.

Mark Zuckerberg:

….take it off the services.

Sen. Josh Hawley:

No, to make money.

Mark Zuckerberg:

And to build tools that empower parents.

Sen. Josh Hawley:

So you didn’t take any action. You didn’t take any action. You didn’t fire anybody. You haven’t compensated a single victim. Let ask you this. Let me ask you this. There’s families of victims here today. Have you apologized to the victims? Would you like to do so now? They’re here. You’re on national television. Would you like now to apologize to the victims who have been harmed by your product? Show him the pictures. Would you like to apologize for what you’ve done to these good people?

Mark Zuckerberg:

I’m sorry for everything that you’ve all gone through. 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.

Justin Hendrix:

Just an incredible moment, almost 20 years to the day that Zuckerberg launched Facebook to see him apologizing to people in public in that way. So what legislation did the senators focus on most?

Gabby Miller:

Yeah, so as expected the Kids Online Safety Act otherwise known as KOSA, was probably the most discussed.

Justin Hendrix:

So that’s why Richard Blumenthal, one of its sponsors, tried to get everyone on the record about it.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

Because I think it’s important to put you on record, who will support the Kids Online Safety Act? Yes or no? Mr. Citron?

Jason Citron:

There are parts of the act that we think are great.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

No, it’s a yes or no question. I’m going to be running out of time, so I’m assuming the answer is no if you can’t answer yes.

Jason Citron:

We very much think that a national privacy standard would be great.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

That’s a no. Mr. Spiegel?

Evan Spiegel:

Senator, we strongly support the Kids Online Safety Act and we’ve already implemented many of its core provisions.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

Thank you. I welcome that support along with Microsoft’s support. Mr. Chew?

Shou Chew:

Senator, with some changes, we can support it.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

In its present form, do you support it, yes or no?

Shou Chew:

We are aware that some groups have raised some concerns. It’s important to understand how-

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

I’ll take that as a no. Ms. Yaccarino?

Linda Yaccarino:

Senator, we support KOSA and will continue to make sure that it accelerates and make sure it continues to offer community for teens that are seeking that voice.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

Mr. Zuckerberg?

Mark Zuckerberg:

Senator, we support the age appropriate content standards but would have some suggestions on how to implement it.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

Yes or no Mr. Zuckerberg? Do you support the Kids Online Safety Act [inaudible 00:10:35] public, and I’m just asking whether you’ll support it or not.

Mark Zuckerberg:

These are nuanced things. I think that the basic spirit is right. I think the basic ideas in it are right and there are some ideas that I would debate how to best-

Sen. Richard Blumenthal:

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can count on social media.

Justin Hendrix:

So not complete agreement here certainly, but it does seem like there was movement on KOSA this week.

Gabby Miller:

So less than a week before the hearing, Snapchat actually announced that it would endorse KOSA. So Meta, Snap, TikTok, and X are all part of the lock that NetChoice represents and Snapchat was the first to break away and endorse the Kids Online Safety Act. And another surprise, the night before the hearing, Microsoft’s President Brad Smith tweeted out that he too supported COSA on behalf of Microsoft. So going in that was a bit of a surprise and then a triple surprise was that X’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino went ahead and also endorsed KOSA.

Justin Hendrix:

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick raised the question of whether in that moment Linda Yaccarino actually understood what she was endorsing or if she was just going along for the ride. I guess it’s safe to say there was a lot of disappointment among the lawmakers that the CEOs didn’t just offer blanket endorsements for their proposed legislation.

Gabby Miller:

There was a moment, a flare up with Senator Klobuchar. I mean, she just said, “I’m so tired of this. I’m so tired of not getting a yes or no.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar:

There’s been so much talk at these hearings and popcorn throwing and the like, and I just want to get this stuff done. I’m so tired of this. It’s been 28 years, what? Since the internet, we haven’t passed any of these bills. Because everyone’s double-talk, double-talk. It’s time to actually pass them and the reason they haven’t passed is because of the power of your company. So let’s be really, really clear about that. So what you say matters. Your words matter.

Justin Hendrix:

There was some mention of a thing called the Report Act, a bill that would amend federal law governing the reporting of suspected child exploitation and abuse. That bill has actually already passed the full Senate. Stanford researcher, Riana Pfefferkorn recently wrote about it for Tech Policy Press. Then there’s the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, a bill designed to make data available to researchers to study the harms on social media. We’ve talked about it a few times on this podcast. Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware was trying to gauge interest in the bill. Was there any enthusiasm?

Gabby Miller:

No. And he was met with basically shrugs.

Sen. Chris Coons:

The larger point is that platforms need to hand over more content about how the algorithms work, what the content does and what the consequences are. Not at the aggregate, not at the population level, but the actual numbers of cases so we can understand the content. In closing, Mr. Chairman, I have a bipartisan bill, the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act co-sponsored by Senators Cornyn, Klobuchar, Blumenthal on this committee and Senator Cassidy and others. It’s in front of the Commerce Committee, not this committee, but it would set reasonable standards for disclosure and transparency to make sure that we’re doing our jobs based on data. Yes, there’s a lot of emotion in this field, understandably, but if we’re going to legislate responsibly about the management of the content on your platforms, we need to have better data. Is there any one of you willing to say, now that you support this bill? Mr. Chairman, let the record reflect a yawning silence from the leaders of the social media platforms.

Justin Hendrix:

There were some very peculiar questions for TikTok CEO, some that were definitely not asked of the others. I guess some of that is to be expected. TikTok is the only company that was at the hearing that has a tieback to China, which is considered at best a strategic challenge for the US and perhaps by many as an adversary. What were the types of questions that were thrown at him?

Gabby Miller:

Yeah, so I think it’s impossible for TikTok CEO Shou Chew to go on Capitol Hill and not be hounded with questions from senators about his company’s relationship with China’s government. I think they’re valid questions in terms of national security and data sharing.

Justin Hendrix:

It’s unfortunate that a lot of that devolved into what sounded like xenophobia and fairly bigoted personal attacks from Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

You said today, as you often say that you live in Singapore. Of what nation are you a citizen?

Shou Chew:

Singapore.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Are you a citizen of any other nation?

Shou Chew:

No Senator.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Have you ever applied for Chinese citizenship.

Shou Chew:

Senator, I served my nation of Singapore. No, I did not.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Do you have a Singaporean passport?

Shou Chew:

Yes, and I served my military for two and a half years in Singapore.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Do you have any other passports from any other nations?

Shou Chew:

No Senator.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Your wife is an American citizen. Your children are American citizens.

Shou Chew:

That’s correct.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Have you ever applied for American citizenship?

Shou Chew:

No, not yet.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Okay. Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?

Shou Chew:

Senator, I’m Singaporean, no.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party?

Shou Chew:

No Senator, again, I’m Singaporean.

Sen. Tom Cotton:

Let me ask you…

Justin Hendrix:

There was a lot of focus on Mark Zuckerberg, a lot of focus on Shou Chew at TikTok. What about the other three? How did they comport themselves and what did you make of Snap’s Evan Spiegel?

Gabby Miller:

One of the only questions that Evan got directly was about some issues Snapchat has had with drug trafficking on its platforms. He had the lines prepared, he apologized for Snapchat facilitating that kind of activity.

Justin Hendrix:

Here’s California Senator Laphonza Butler asking that question.

Sen. Laphonza Butler:

Mr. Spiegel, there are a number of parents who’s children have been able to access illegal drugs on your platform. What do you say to those parents?

Evan Spiegel:

Senator, we are devastated that we cannot-

Sen. Laphonza Butler:

To the parents. What do you say to those parents Mr. Spiegel?

Evan Spiegel:

I’m so sorry that we have not been able to prevent these tragedies. We work very hard to block all search terms related to drugs from our platform. We proactively look for and detect drug related content. We remove it from our platform, preserve it as evidence, and then we refer it to law enforcement for action. We’ve worked together with nonprofits and with families on education campaigns because the scale of the fentanyl epidemic is extraordinary. Over 100,000 people lost their lives last year, and we believe people need to know that one pill can kill. That campaign was viewed more than 260 million times on Snapchat. We also-

Sen. Laphonza Butler:

Mr. Spiegel, there are two fathers in this room who lost their sons. They’re 16 years old. Their children were able to get those pills from Snapchat. I know that there are statistics and I know that there are good efforts. None of those efforts are keeping our kids from getting access to those drugs on your platform. As a California company, all of you, I’ve talked with you about what it means to be a good neighbor and what California families and American families should be expecting from you. You owe them more.

Gabby Miller:

We did work making a backgrounder and SnapChat has some of the most egregious cases of CSAM, child sexual abuse material spreading on its app. Zuckerberg and Shou Chew got all the questioning and it didn’t leave a lot of space for the rest of them to address legitimate concerns that happened on their platform. As a result of Mark Zuckerberg being Senator’s punching bag on Wednesday, I think that really let X, Discord, Snapchat, it let them off the hook. They left the hearing unscathed. If anything, I think they almost looked good. When you look at Mark Zuckerberg getting just absolutely hammered, and then you see Evan Spiegel sitting on the other side of Mark Zuckerberg sitting in silence, he looks pretty good.

Justin Hendrix:

So what now, Gabby, are we expecting senators to push through a bunch of laws?

Gabby Miller:

So Haajrah Gilani, a reporter who was working with Tech Policy Press and was actually at the hearing in DC on Wednesday, she actually flagged down Senator Richard Blumenthal, who has been one of the biggest proponents of the Kids Online Safety Act. He introduced the bill alongside Senator Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee. She flagged Senator Blumenthal down and basically asked that question, what’s next? And all he said was, “Well, it’s time to pass KOSA.” I think in some ways it makes sense. If we can get Mark Zuckerberg in the room, get everyone to really hammer him, grab some headlines, maybe we can finally get the support for KOSA that we need to get it across the finish line. And the only thing that got in its way from being passed was Senator Chuck Schumer not taking it up for a floor vote. So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it got so far before the end of the year. Now we’re starting this year off trying to whip up a frenzy, bringing in these big tech CEOs.

Justin Hendrix:

Well, if KOSA or some other alternative doesn’t pass, I suspect the advocates and the parents won’t let up. Todd Miner, one of the parents survivors represented at the hearing told Haajrah Gilani that they intend to keep up the pressure.

Todd Minor:

I liked what I saw, it looked like Mr. Zuckerberg, I think he was getting a little worn down too because when they asked him about doing an apology, he kind of put his hands down on the table and he popped up and turned and gave, I guess his best version of an apology. And I think everything’s working. It’s wearing on them and that’s what needs to happen. Either they comply or we’re just going to keep coming.

Justin Hendrix:

Gabby, thanks so much for joining me for this.

Gabby Miller:

Thank you so much for having me, Justin. I’ll see you at the office on Monday.

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