Technology

Mark Zuckerberg, Linda Vaccarino, and TikTok's Shou Chew

Clash With Lawmakers Over Child Safety. Leaders of social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok faced questions about harmful content.

By Inc.Arabia Staff
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BY JENNIFER CONRAD, SENIOR WRITER@JENNIFERCONRAD

In what's becoming a familiar sight on Capitol HIll, leaders of social media companies were in the hot seat today, answering questions about whether their platforms were doing enough to protect their youngest users.

For nearly four hours, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee lectured and lobbed questions at X CEO Linda YaccarinoTikTok CEO Shou Chew, Snap co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel, Meta founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Discord co-founder and CEO Jason Citron.

Yaccarino, Spiegel, and Citron all had to be subpoenaed to appear before the committee, and Citron only complied after US marshals personally delivered the subpoena "at taxpayer expense," Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted as the hearing kicked off.

Many of the senators have come to believe tech platforms have become too powerful to "grade their own homework," in the words of Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Blumenthal and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) are co-sponsors of the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bipartisan bill now before Congress that would hold online platforms such as social networks, video streaming sites, and gaming platforms responsible for harmful material on their platforms, including child sexual assault material (CSAM), harassment, and information that's detrimental to kids' mental health.

A protest outside US Congress depicts Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO toasting champagne on pile of cash.

A protest outside US Congress depicts Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO toasting champagne on pile of cash.Photo: Courtesy Eko

More than 200 organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, have endorsed the bill, which would also limit the data that can be collected about kids and restrict how they can be marketed to. Companies would be required to give underage users the strictest privacy settings by default and to allow kids to opt out of personalized recommendations, or limit them.

Senators including Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called for a revision to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents platforms from being held responsible for user-generated content. Others referenced the Stop CSAM Act, which specifically calls for more "accountability and transparency" from the tech industry in fighting sexual exploitation of children.

The proposed reforms could have ramifications for any company that hosts user-generated content or uses algorithms to serve content to underage customers, including allowing individuals to sue companies that host materials that cause harm.

"Until these people can be sued for the damage they are doing, it's all talk," said Graham, following an exchange with Zuckerberg about a teenager in South Carolina who died by suicide after being drawn into a sex extortion scheme on Instagram.

On direct questioning, Yaccarino and Spiegel said they supported KOSA. The other CEOs all said they supported parts of the bill but declined to offer unconditional support. Critics have called the bill overly broad and say it could restrict free speech.

The chief executives attempted to redirect questions about the harm their platforms caused by focusing on the material they had removed or reported to law enforcement, the billions they'd spent on safety, and their extensive moderation teams, in some cases numbering tens of thousands of workers. Senators countered that the companies have business incentives to continue signing young users and keeping them engaged for as long as possible.

Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) noted that most platforms make money by selling advertising, or "the attention of your users." If companies are going to make money off kids who use their platforms, she told the CEOs, "you have an obligation to ensure they're safe...but that costs money."

Young people attended the hearing in T-shirts that read "I'm worth more than $270," a reference to a Meta internal message made public during a lawsuit that estimated the lifetime value of a 13-year-old new user at $270. Outside the Capitol, protesters from Washington, DC-based advocacy group Eko set up a large cutout of Chew and Zuckerberg, toasting glasses of Champagne and sitting on a pile of money.

Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) pushed Zuckerberg to apologize to the families in the room of "victims who have been harmed by your products." Zuckerberg then addressed the chamber, including relatives who attended the hearing holding photos of children they'd lost. "No one should have to go through the things your families have suffered," he said. Earlier in the hearing, Spiegel apologized to parents who had lost children to overdoses from fentanyl purchased on Snapchat.

One by one, the senators hammered home that they did not trust Big Tech to regulate itself. "Congress is going to have to help you," Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) said to the chief executives.

"I have to hand it to you," he added to Zuckerberg. "You have convinced over two billion people to give up all of their personal information...in exchange for getting to see what your high school friends had for dinner Saturday night."

Photo Credit: Getty Images.

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