Approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in decisive bipartisan votes in May, the bills were hailed as evidence of growing momentum for the issue in Congress. Washington has trailed state legislatures in passing laws aimed at protecting children on social media and on other digital platforms.
But industry lobbyists and dozens of civil society groups have since urged Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to reject the measures, arguing that they would undermine privacy protections and have a chilling effect on legitimate speech. Schumer has yet to commit to bring the package to a vote before the full Senate.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) attributed the lack of movement to opposition from “big and powerful” tech companies who “work behind the scenes” and “enlist a lot of interest groups” to raise concerns that the bills would have vast and harmful unintended consequences.
“I’m ready to go to the floor. I think we can pass it. But there have been forces that have held them up,” Durbin said in an interview.
Some of Durbin’s allies also are growing impatient. Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and co-lead of one of the measures, said he plans to try to force a vote on the Senate floor to “make people object” publicly to the measures. The tactic has a high risk of failure, but lawmakers often use it to force opponents to take public stands on thorny issues.
Asked if he’s frustrated, Graham said: “Big time.”
In the fall, a coalition of advocacy groups urged Schumer to reject two of the bills, writing that they “would lead apps and websites to surveil every single word, image, and video its users post” and “censor First Amendment protected speech.” The letter was signed by digital and civil rights groups, including the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as think tanks and trade groups that receive industry funding, such as the Chamber of Progress.
Durbin argued that exposing tech companies to “financial responsibility” if they fail to crack down on child abuse material is the most effective way to hold them accountable. But he acknowledged that Senate Democrats are not uniformly aligned in that view.
Schumer is “listening to his caucus and he knows that even though many of them do not speak publicly about this issue, they are reluctant to support the effort for a variety of reasons,” Durbin said.
Schumer’s office declined to comment on plans for a vote. In a statement, spokeswoman Allison Biasotti said “children’s online safety is a priority for Leader Schumer.”
“While we work to pass the supplemental and keep the government funded in the coming weeks, Leader Schumer will continue to work with the sponsors of the online safety bills to ensure the necessary support,” Biasotti said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an outspoken critic of the tech giants and a supporter of Durbin’s and Graham’s proposals, questioned Schumer’s commitment to the cause. “I think Senator Schumer doesn’t want to vote on them … because the tech companies hate all of this stuff,” Hawley said.
The role of tech companies in curbing child abuse material is set to be the focus of the panel’s Wednesday hearing with the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Discord and X, formerly Twitter.
A separate package of online safety bills for children, led by members of the Senate Commerce Committee, also has yet to reach the floor, despite twice advancing out of committee. While the Judiciary package targets child abuse material, the Commerce measures would require platforms to offer parents and children stronger privacy and safety features by default.
If any of those measures pass the Senate, they probably would face an uphill battle in the House, where lawmakers have yet to introduce companion measures for many of them, including Durbin’s “STOP CSAM Act.” Time also is running short to pass legislation before the November elections.
While Wednesday’s Senate hearing was set to bring attention to the issues, children’s safety advocates said it is no substitute for legislative action.
“As important as congressional hearings are — and they are important — another hearing is not going to give children any new protections online,” said Danny Weiss, chief advocacy officer for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on improving children’s interactions with the digital world.