UPDATE, 11:10 p.m. PT: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) wrapped up the hearing on child online exploitation by calling for passage of a series of bills that would place more liability on platforms for the proliferation of such content.
The bills passed out of committee unanimously last year, but have yet to make it to the floor. Past legislation to rein in the power of major platforms has languished. Among the bills is the STOP CSAM Act, which would allow victims of exploitation to bring civil action against platforms, as well as another provision that imposes criminal liability. The SHIELD Act would establish criminal liability for those who share “private, sexually explicit or nude images without consent.” The Kids Online Safety Act would require that platforms provide minors with safeguards to protect personal data and places restrictions on the use of algorithms.
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Durbin said that parents “are counting on us as much as they’re counting on the industry to do the responsible thing.”
He also got in a parting shot at Zuckerberg, taking issue with his opening statement that research has “not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having a worse mental health outcomes.”
Durbin told Zuckerberg that he thinks “your statement on mental health needs to be explained, because I don’t think it makes any sense. There isn’t a parent in this room who has a child who is going through an emotional experience like this who wouldn’t tell you or me, ‘They changed right in front of my eyes.’ The hole themselves up in their room, they no longer reached out to their friends, they lost all interest in school. These are the mental health consequences that I think come with the abuse of this right, they have access to this technology.”
PREVIOUSLY, 10:50 p.m. PT: Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg faced some of the toughest grilling at the Senate hearing on child online exploitation, but that didn’t mean that other tech CEOs went unscathed.
Shou Chew, the CEO of TikTok, faced questions not only about the platform’s ability to police content, but on its connections to China.
Last year, to skeptical lawmakers, he testified at a House hearing that TikTok parent ByteDance wasn’t controlled by the Chinese government.
He faced more questions today on China’s influence over the platform.
Sen. Tom Cotton (D-AR) asked him, “Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist party?”
“Senator, I am Singaporean. No,” Shou Chew responded.
He then pressed him on whether the Chinese government is committing genocide against the Uyghur people.
“Actually, senator, I talk mainly about my company, and I am here to talk about what my company does.” He later said that he would not comment on any world leaders.
As the day went on, Zuckerberg seemed to face even more blunt questioning.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) asked him whether people really understand that the tradeoff for using Facebook and Instagram was giving up their personal data. “Does your user agreement still suck?” Kennedy asked.
“I am not sure how to answer that, senator,” Zuckerberg said, while adding that he thinks people “get the basic deal of using these services.”
PREVIOUSLY, 10:07 a.m. PT: A theatrical moment of the hearing came when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) pressed Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to apologize to families of victims of online child exploitation.
“Would you like to apologize for what you have done to these good people?” Hawley said.
Zuckerberg stood up from his chair, turned around and addressed those in the audience. It was not entirely clear what he said, but he could be heard saying “sorry” and telling them that Meta had invested in safety measures “to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things that your families have had to suffer.” Some family members held up pictures of their children who were victimized online.
Hawley, though, continued to press Zuckerberg on whether Meta should offer compensation to the families.
“Why should your company not be sued for this?” Hawley asked.
On CNN, Dana Bash told viewers that it was “a moment for the ages.”
The hearing has been a rare moment of bipartisan agreement against tech companies for not doing enough to police their platforms.
Later, a Meta spokesperson released Zuckerberg’s full remarks to the families.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” he said. “No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologizes to families present at Senate Judiciary hearing on Online Child Sexual Exploitation. pic.twitter.com/G4fueN2S9X
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 31, 2024
PREVIOUSLY, 8:50 a.m. PT: “As a collective, your platforms really suck at policing themselves,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told tech CEOs, as he called for revising Section 230, the provision of a 1996 law that has shielded social media companies from liability for third party content.
Whitehouse cited the case of a teenager who was blackmailed in 2017 with sexually explicit photos of himself, only to have them surface on Twitter. The social media company took no action, and the high schooler became suicidal when his classmates made him aware of the video. The family sued Twitter for initially refusing to take down the video, but was barred from doing so because of Section 230.
“There is nothing about those set of facts that tells me that Section 230 performed any public service in that regard,” Whitehouse said.
PREVIOUSLY, 8:20 a.m. PT: Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg expressed support for legislation that would require parental control anytime a child downloads an app.
But Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who has championed a number of efforts to rein in the power of big tech, suggested that such a measure would be insufficient.
She said that parents already face a blizzard of technology when it comes to trying to protect their kids. She backs legislation that would boost criminal enforcement and increase platform liability.
She expressed frustration that little has been done already. “Everyone is double talk, double talk” until legislation is stalled due to industry lobbying.
In late 2022, an antitrust bill to boost the bargaining power of traditional news outlets, sponsored by Klobuchar and Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), looked to be on its way to being part of year-end legislation until Meta came out and lobbied against it.
PREVIOUSLY: Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, X CEO Linda Yaccarino and other tech industry leaders faced a grilling from lawmakers today as they appeared for a landmark Senate hearing on the online exploitation of children.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) blamed the tech platforms at the outset for allowing the exploitation to proliferate, while dismissing the latest efforts the companies have taken to boost safety.
“They are responsible for many of the dangers our children face online,” Durbin said, calling it a “crisis in America.”
“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. You have a product that is killing people,” said the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), told Zuckerberg, as he sat at the witness table.
He called for the repeal of Section 230, the provision of a 1996 law that shielded platforms from liability for the third party content posted on their sites. Durbin has proposed legislation that, among other things, would hold companies liable for civil damages for the ” intentional, knowing, or reckless promotion or facilitation” of childhood sexually exploitive content.
Graham noted that Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) had found “emails from your company where they warned you about this stuff, and you decided not to hire 45 people that could do a better job of policing this.”
“So the bottom line is, you can’t be sued. You should be, and these emails would be great for punitive damages,” Graham said.
Zuckerberg stared intently at Graham as he faced his criticism.
Also appearing at the hearing was the CEO of TikTok, Shou Chew; Snap co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel; and Discord CEO Jason Citron.
Durbin said that Zuckerberg and Chew were appearing at the hearing voluntarily, while the others attended after being subpoenaed.
In the background of the hearing, demonstrators held photos of children who have been victims of online exploitation. The hearing started with a video in which victims told of being sexually exploited online. A mother stared into the camera and said that her child died from suicide after being exploited on Facebook. Others told of futile efforts to get platforms to act. “How many more kids will suffer and die from social media?” one parent asked.
But Congress has taken little action to limit the power on tech companies, nearly six years after Zuckerberg testified solo at a hearing that marked a turning point in the tech industry’s interaction with lawmakers. Although they have been on defense on an array of issues, including on other issues like antitrust, content moderation and the influence of foreign actors, legislation has stalled out, even on basic reforms like privacy.
Major cable news networks carried portions of the hearing, including Zuckerberg’s opening statement. He and other CEOs acknowledged the problem, but tried to emphasize the safety measures that they have taken.
Chou said, “I know that the issues that we are discussing today are horrific and the nightmare for every parent.”
Yaccarino said that less than 1% of users on X were between the ages of 13 and 17. But she faced a tough series of questions from Graham as she tried to say that X was willing to work with lawmakers on a solution, but the senator expressed his frustration and view that it was all talk.
After questioning other CEOs, too, Graham said, “Until these people can be sued until the damage they are doing, it is all talk.”
Other proposed laws would restrict the types of algorithms that platforms can use to target young users, and another that would mandate age requirements or use.
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