Discord CEO Jason Citron, Snap Co-founder Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Chew, X CEO Linda Yaccarino and Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg, are sworn in before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.” Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., used a floor speech Tuesday to make the case for passing the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act of 2023. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Meta, prepares to deliver remarks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.” Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Ranking Member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., makes an opening statement as Committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., listens during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing entitled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.” Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Jan. 31 (UPI) — Social media executives appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday during a hearing to address growing child safety issues on their platforms.
In a Tuesday speech on the Senate floor, Judiciary chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., vowed to grill the witness panel — including Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, and Discord CEO Jason Citron — “about the harms Big Tech is inflicting on our kids.”
The hearing takes place amid the prevailing sentiment that the platforms have fallen short on adequate measures to prevent sex offenders from targeting children or engaging in the trade of child sexual abuse material.
Lawmakers have recently condemned the tech industry for failing to protect kids from a “plague of online child sexual exploitation” as the social media apps have gone viral among America’s youth, Durbin said.
The committee hearing is pivotal in shaping upcoming legislation that aims to regulate the social media platforms, while focusing on new measures to safeguard children.
In November, the Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas to Yaccarino, Spiegel and Citron to testify at the hearing.
Durbin used the floor speech to make the case for passing the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act of 2023, which aims to support child victims and increase accountability and transparency across all social media platforms.
Durbin also called for Congress to update a landscape of antiquated laws amid a flood of technological innovations.
“For the first time, the CEOs of five Big Tech companies will testify about the crisis of online child sexual exploitation,” Durbin said, while emphasizing a mission to continue fighting the dangers children face online.
“I look forward to hearing from these companies about what they’re doing to make their platforms inaccessible to child sex offenders,” Durbin declared.
He also noted that some of the companies recently launched new child safety measures “that are long overdue.”
“Because these changes are half measures at best, I welcome the opportunity to question them about what more needs to be done,” Durbin said.
A year ago, the Judiciary Committee held a similar hearing, which included powerful testimony from those working to increase children’s privacy and safety online, however, no new laws have emerged yet amid escalating calls for regulation.
Last October, a bipartisan coalition of 33 attorneys general filed a joint federal lawsuit against Meta, asserting the tech giant incorporated addictive features into its apps, adversely impacting children’s mental health and contributing to issues such as cyberbullying, body image concerns and teen suicide.
In an op-ed published Wednesday in The Hill, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., called attention to suicides by three teenagers who faced online bullying, cyberstalking and peer pressure to perform dangerous online challenges.
“There are countless more heartbreaking stories just like these, of kids who have died or been severely harmed on social media,” the lawmakers wrote. “We have heard the immeasurable grief from their families and the resounding frustration about the dark and addictive rabbit holes these young people were pulled down.”
Blumenthal and Blackburn cited “empty promises” by the social media companies to act on their own to fix the problems, claiming they “rushed to announce new safety features” in the days before the congressional hearing.
“Our legislation has one goal: to ensure an online environment for kids that is safe by default,” the lawmakers wrote. “We accomplish that by creating a Duty of Care for those sites that know they are catering to young users.”
They also cited another piece of legislation, called the Kids Online Safety Act, which would force the platforms “to bear the responsibility for recklessly promoting suicide, bullying, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation.”
The legislation would require tech companies to provide options to protect a child’s privacy, disable addictive product features, and opt out of algorithmic recommendations.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, Meta — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — faces a series of lawsuits concerning child safety on its platforms. In December, New Mexico’s attorney general filed a civil suit, claiming that Meta’s apps enable sexual predators to exploit children and distribute harmful content, while Meta neglected the issue as its leadership team prioritized profits.
Last November, a Meta whistleblower Arturo Bejar testified before Congress about Instagram’s product design, alleging that the popular social media platform knowingly created products at the expense of teens’ mental health and safety, increasing the demand for a social media regulation bill.
Previously, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation named five social media companies to an annual “Dirty Dozen” list for facilitating child sexual exploitation.