The Senate Judiciary Committee today did not hold back in an hours-long hearing with five social media CEOs in what could amount to the introduction of online child safety laws in the U.S.
The committee faced Meta Platforms Inc. founder and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg (pictured), X Corp CEO Linda Yaccarino, TikTok Inc. Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew, Snap Inc. co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel and Discord Inc. CEO Jason Citron.
The meeting was titled “Big Tech and the online child sexual exploitation crisis.” All those platforms have been criticized in the past for what their detractors say is facilitating child exploitation. The companies have introduced new measures to tackle the problem, but the criticism goes deeper, often centering on mental health harm in general.
With regard to Meta, which seemed to be the focus of the ire that permeated today’s meeting, it has been accused of knowingly developing products that are harmful to younger people. In October last year, a group of 42 U.S. attorneys general sued the company for such harm.
Last year, lawmakers introduced the bipartisan bill, “Protecting Kids on Social Media Act,” in an effort to save young people from the alleged perils of social media, but free speech advocates have aired concerns about a chilling effect in what might become oppressive digital surveillance.
In today’s grilling, the senators didn’t hold back, blasting Zuckerberg for what they consider to be Meta effectively ruining the lives of scores of young people. Zuckerberg apologized, saying, “No one should go through” what the children and parents who were discussed in the hearing had gone through.
Sitting in the back benches were parents of children who’d harmed themselves as a result of their social media use. Although sexual exploitation should have been the main topic, the senators took a broader approach to harm.
It was broad enough for Chew to be asked if his company shares data with the Chinese government, something TikTok has strenuously denied to little effect among U.S. politicians. Chew denied his company was spying for the Chinese Communist Party. Talking about harm to kids, he said where he lives, Singapore, there are laws that prevent his own kids from using social media – exactly what many of the politicians in the meeting are calling for.
But if real bombs fell, they fell on Zuckerberg, who spent a good part of the almost-four-hour meeting deflecting salvos of what seemed close to rancor. Republican Senator Ted Cruz asked him, “Mr Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” That was a reference to a prompt on Instagram in which kids were asked if they’d like to see an image, possibly a sexual image, and they could choose the ‘yes’ option. “Every parent in America is terrified about the garbage that is directed at our kids,” Cruz said.
Senator Dick Durbin, the chair of the committee and a Democrat from Illinois, talked about the “constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety put our kids and grandkids at risk.” This has been referred to in the past as a “see no evil, hear no evil” attitude.
“Discord has been used to groom, abduct, and abuse children,” Durbin said. “Meta’s Instagram helped connect and promote a network of pedophiles. Snapchat’s disappearing messages have been co-opted by criminals who financially extort young victims. TikTok has become a platform of choice for predators to access, engage, and groom children for abuse.”
Senator Josh Hawley didn’t hold back, either, telling Zuckerberg, “Your product is killing people.” When Senator Lindsey Graham said in his opening remarks, “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,” the audience erupted into a round of applause.
This was high drama at Congress today, and there can be no doubt that these companies will introduce more child safety features. Nonetheless, constant engagement is what they engineer; it’s their bread and butter, so there’s no easy fix. Sweeping legislation such as what the U.K. has introduced will be a harder sell in the U.S.
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