Meta, X, TikTok CEOs ripped by senators over child online safety

Leaders from five social media platforms were admonished by US lawmakers on Wednesday over their “failure” to protect kids online from sexual predators and mental health issues, and were pressed to support new legislation to impose controls.

The 21-member Senate Judiciary Committee called the chief executives of Meta Platforms, X, Snap, Discord and TikTok to Washington in an effort to hold them accountable for their platforms’ impact on teenagers and children.

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“These companies must be reined in, or the worst is yet to come,” Senator Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the committee, said. Singling out Meta Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, Graham said he had “blood on his hands,” detailing a story of a child who was a victim of sexual exploitation. “You have a product that’s killing people,” he added. His comments were met with an uproar of applause and cheers from advocates in attendance in the packed hearing room.

Congress has been under pressure to respond to mounting evidence of the spread of child sexual abuse material online and the tech companies’ inability to protect children from predators. They have also raised concerns about the effect social media use has on young people’s mental health. TikTok and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, are facing lawsuits in California that claim the companies were negligent and ignored the potential harms their platforms created for teens.

Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, convened the hearing to generate momentum for the committee’s legislation targeting online child sexual exploitation.

“We remain ready to work with members of this committee, industry and parents to make the internet safer for everyone,” Zuckerberg said. “I’m proud of the work that our teams do to improve online and child safety on our services and across the entire internet.”

But the senators had little patience for Zuckerberg or his peers and found their efforts, some of which Durbin noted have been introduced only recently, fell short.

“Discord has been used to groom, abduct and abuse children. Meta’s Instagram helped connect and promote a network of pedophiles,” Durbin said. “Snapchat’s disappearing messages have been coopted by criminals who financially sextort young victims.”

“Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, and their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk.”

Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin during a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, DC on January 31.

Lawmakers have examined children’s online safety in previous hearings, but Wednesday marks the first time Congress convened the executives to discuss the matter as part of a broader effort to move legislation forward.

President Joe Biden, tech industry whistleblowers, parents, and teenagers themselves have repeatedly called on Congress to improve safety online as evidence suggests social media use could be worsening youngsters’ mental health. Yet legislative proposals have languished as tech and digital rights groups lobby against them, characterizing many of the measures as ineffective and dangerous for user privacy and safety.

Durbin also acknowledged the responsibility of Congress, which has repeatedly failed to set regulations on social media companies over the years.

Meta has faced significant pushback for its child safety practices and Zuckerberg explained on Wednesday the many tools that Meta has rolled out to protect young people, including parental controls that set time limits on app usage, notifications to review privacy settings, and restrictions on interactions with adults.

But the senators weren’t buying it, and spent more time questioning Zuckerberg directly than his peers over four hours of testimony.

Josh Hawley of Missouri asked the co-founder of Facebook if he would personally compensate victims of sexual exploitation on his sites.

“You’re a billionaire,” Hawley said. ”Will you set up a victim’s compensation fund with your money?”

In a particularly dramatic moment, Hawley asked Zuckerberg whether he’s apologized to victims and their families who have been exploited on his platforms — including the ones in the audience today. At Hawley’s urging, the CEO stood up, turned around and addressed the audience.

Mark Zuckerberg addresses the audience during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, DC on January 31.

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“I am sorry for everything that you have all gone through,” Zuckerberg said. “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.”

Zuckerberg also faced questions about the fact that he rejected requests from his top leadership in 2021 to expand teams overseeing child safety and well-being, according to documents and emails released by Congress ahead of the hearing. In the hearing, Zuckerberg said Meta spent $5 billion last year on trust and safety.

Linda Yaccarino, the CEO of X, Snap’s Evan Spiegel and Jason Citron of Discord, were testifying in Congress for the first time but didn’t get off lightly, either.

Linda Yaccarino during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, DC on January 31.

Yaccarino, who took on the CEO role at X last June, endorsed one of the committee’s bipartisan bills that has yet to reach the Senate floor for a vote. Known as the STOP CSAM Act, the bill intends to empower victims of child sex abuse by allowing them to sue social media companies. The bill would also make it easier for victims to request the removal of child sex abuse material from online platforms.

“As a mother, this is personal, and I share the sense of urgency,” Yaccarino said. “It is time for a federal standard to criminalize the sharing of non-consensual intimate material.”

Unlike other social media companies that focus on courting young users, Yaccarino highlighted X’s older customer base. “X is not the platform of choice for children and teens,” she said, adding that teens are automatically set to a default private setting. Of X’s 90 million US users, Yaccarino said fewer than 1% are minors.

Yaccarino and Spiegel both voiced support for the Kids Online Safety Act, though the X chief stopped short of endorsing it, which Snap has done. The bill, championed by Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican on the committee, and Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, would create legal requirements for tech companies to keep children safe from content that promotes violence, sexual exploitation, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

“No legislation is perfect, but some rules of the road are better than none,” Spiegel said.

Yaccarino said the Kids Online Safety Act “should continue to progress and we will support the continuation to engage with it and ensure the protections of the freedom of speech.”

TikTok CEO Shou Chew, whose app is owned by ByteDance Ltd. of China, faced questions over child safety and also his company’s links to the Chinese Communist Party. Hawley reiterated calls for a nationwide ban on the popular app.

Chew last appeared before a House committee nearly a year ago. As part of Chew’s testimony, TikTok pledged to spend $2 billion this year on trust and safety globally, as the popular video service crosses 170 million monthly active users in the US.

TikTok “largely” supports the STOP CSAM act, Chew said, but the company has questions about how it would be implemented.

© 2024 Bloomberg

Harry Byrne

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