“No one should go through the things that your families have suffered,” said Zuckerberg, turning to face families in the hearing room after Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) loudly pressured him to deliver a public apology.
Though Zuckerberg also said Meta was investing in its own approach to kids’ online safety, the tech giant has not backed any of the five bills the Judiciary Committee has moved this term. Those bills have yet to get a Senate floor vote.
The hearing was the latest installment in what has become a form of Washington theater: Politicians take crowd-pleasing potshots at powerful but largely untouchable tech-platform leaders, and the leaders offer responses — sometimes polished, sometimes awkward — without yielding ground on their most valuable piece of policy real estate, their protection against liability.
Both Republican and Democratic senators threw strongly worded punches at both the group and the individual executives, particularly Meta’s Zuckerberg and TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew.
“Collectively, your platforms really suck at policing themselves,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
“You have blood on your hands,” said the committee ranking member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Hawley, and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) went hard after Chew over TikTok’s relationship with its Beijing-based owner ByteDance and the Chinese government.
Many of the most barbed lines about kids’ protection elicited applause from a room packed with advocates, victims and families who lost children due to online harms — highlighting the emotional national debate about child safety online.
But that apparent bipartisan consensus masks larger obstacles in Congress to moving any kind of new rules on tech platforms forward. The industry has largely opposed any new laws aimed at protecting kids, and CEOs offered at best partial support for multiple bills currently stalled in the Senate. Regulation on TikTok specifically, which enjoyed huge support last year, has also fizzled.
X CEO Linda Yaccarino, in her debut Capitol Hill appearance, became the first platform leader to endorse Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin‘s (D-Ill.) STOP CSAM Act, which would peel back tech platforms’ liability shield — known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — to allow individuals who have faced online child sexual exploitation to sue the platform that distributed the material.
“That is progress, my friends,” Durbin said.
However, the group largely remained silent, or demurred, when directly asked about their support for the full suite of laws. That included Yaccarino as well when Graham asked: “In English: Do you support the EARN IT Act, yes or no?” She declined to support it.
The EARN IT Act, sponsored by Graham, would curtail tech’s liability shield to allow individuals to sue tech companies for hosting child sexual abuse material. It has failed to advance to a floor vote for the last three Congresses.
Discord CEO Jason Citron, in his first Capitol Hill appearance, said the company is “not prepared to support” the STOP CSAM Act or the EARN IT Act, but does think Section 230 is a “very old law” that “needs to be updated.” (Minutes after Citron’s questioning, Discord sent a statement to POLITICO clarifying that the company supports “elements” of the STOP CSAM Act.)
Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said he supported the Kids Online Safety Act, another stalled bill, which aims to stop platforms from recommending harmful material like suicide and eating disorder content. Snap was the first social media platform to back the bill, as
POLITICO first reported last week.
The audience was full of victims of child exploitation, as well as families and parents whose children died due to bullying and drug sales on the social media platforms — 400 of whom
sent a letter to pressure Congress to act urgently to better protect kids on the sites. A number of families held framed photos as well as buttons and pins of their deceased children.
Despite the fresh energy, the hearing also came with a strong whiff of deja vu, with Zuckerberg making his eighth appearance on Capitol Hill, and
Chew his second.
Anxiety over China
A full second thread emerged over the day as Republican senators turned their focus to TikTok CEO Chew, repeatedly pressing him on whether the company sends data to China, his personal ties to the Chinese Communist Party and
reports that employees at its Beijing-based parent company can still access U.S. user information.
Chew, a Singaporean citizen — a fact the CEO emphasized to Cotton multiple times during a line of questioning into his background — repeatedly denied that his company is handing the Chinese government data to surveil Americans, and gave updates on the company’s
billion-dollar effort to keep Americans’ data on U.S.-based servers.
China hawks used Wednesday’s hearing as an opportunity to follow up on unfinished business from Chew’s first
lengthy Congressional appearance in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last March. Members of both parties took turns publicly interrogating Chew during that first hearing about China’s influence over the platform and TikTok’s plans if compelled to hand over data to the CCP.
Since then, TikTok has tried to stem off the threat of a national ban by deleting U.S. user data off servers that
predate its transition to U.S.-based hardware owned by Oracle.
That didn’t stop Hawley from asking Chew again on Wednesday to defend TikTok against a proposed ban, and listing ways the platform is still connected to China.
“Heaven knows I’ve got problems with everybody here. But your app — unlike any of those — is subject to the control and inspection of a foreign, hostile government that has actively tried to track the information of whereabouts of every American they get their hands on,” he told Chew. “Your app ought to be banned in the United States of America for the security of this country.”
As with kids’ protection, little has happened to TikTok on the regulatory front — in part because banning a company with First Amendment protections is
nearly impossible under American law.
No clear path forward
Some observers thought Congress had sharpened its game, at least since the days when it would regularly get flamed online for naive questions about the industry it was interrogating.
Joann Bogard, a member of the kids’ safety group Fairplay and parent of a child who died attempting an online challenge, felt the industry’s answers largely “felt the same,” but the politicians on the other side were focusing more clearly on the problems. “Certainly felt like the senators were well-informed and had some deeper questions this time,” she said.
In a press conference after the hearing, Graham promised to discuss kids’ safety legislation with House Speaker Mike Johnson. Graham also said he hopes to introduce a bill to repeal legal immunity for tech platforms altogether in the coming weeks.
That wasn’t the only new bill promised: Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said he will reintroduce a bill during the hearing called the
PROTECT Act, which would require websites to verify ages and get permission from any person featured in pornographic images.
The bill would also require tech platforms to have processes to remove such images. Lee said the bill would be “a good complement” to the
SHIELD Act, one of the five bills that advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would
make it a crime for anyone to knowingly distribute non-consensual intimate images online. X CEO Yaccarino agreed to the PROTECT Act in principle, based on the company’s support of the SHIELD Act.
If introduced, those would join five bills already stalled after being passed out of the Judiciary Committee.
Though they unite some senators across party lines, tech-reform bills have tended to split parties over specific issues like privacy, giving them a difficult road in Washington.
Even Durbin acknowledged in his opening remarks Congress’ failure to act. “The tech industry alone is not to blame for the situation we are in,” he said. “Those of us in Congress need to look in the mirror.”