At Senate hearing, lawmakers create new tensions with Big Tech execs

Top lawmakers are growing tired of waiting for tech giants to patch their own holes.

Yesterday, CEOs for five major social media platforms faced hours of questions from visibly frustrated members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The hearing, titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” gave members of Congress a chance to ask the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Discord, X and Snap what they’re doing to protect kids on their platform.

Lawmakers also asked the tech giants whether they would support any of the bills they’ve introduced to regulate the popular platforms. Collectively they expressed concerns about the potential harms of social media including sexual content, human trafficking, suicide, drug use, online privacy and other issues related to mental health.

The hearing marked a return to Congress for Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, but a first for X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap CEO and cofounder Evan Spiegel and Discord cofounder and CEO Jason Citron. 

“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,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.). “You have a product that’s killing people … There’s an upside to everything here, but the dark side hasn’t been dealt with.”

Several other lawmakers also expressed interest in changing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so tech companies are no longer exempt from being sued. Graham, the ranking Republican on the committee, said he thinks Congress is “going to die waiting” for tech companies to solve the concerns themselves. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said she doesn’t expect anything to change “unless we open up the courtroom doors.”

“When a Boeing plane lost a door in mid-flight several weeks ago, nobody questioned the decisions to ground a fleet of over 700 planes,” said Klobuchar. “So why aren’t we taking the same type of decisive action on the danger of these platforms when we know kids are dying?” 

The hearing’s audience on Capitol Hill included victims of online abuse. The room also was filled with families of children that died after becoming victims of sexual exploitation or other forms of harassment through social media. Other seats were taken by young people wearing t-shirts that read “I’m worth more than $270” — a reference to a previously reported internal Meta email that gave 13-year old teen users a “lifetime value” of around $270.

Some lawmakers didn’t give the CEOs much chance to even answer their questions and were often quick to interrupt. One of the most dramatic moments of the hearing came when Zuckerberg turned around to apologize to the victims and their families after being pressured by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) Snap CEO Evan Spiegel also issued an apology to victims soon after.

Absence of AI 

Despite recent regulatory efforts related to artificial intelligence, AI didn’t upstage the rest of the hearing’s agenda. Several members of the committee are also cosponsors of a new bill introduced Wednesday that would ban non-consensual sexual content generated by AI.

The elephant in the room still came up several times via comments from CEOs and senators. While Zuckerberg and Citron both mentioned using AI to detect harmful content, X CEO Linda Yaccarino said AI will help offenders “continue to sophisticate and evolve.”

“I worry that in 2024, our democracy will be attacked again through these platforms by foreign actors,” Graham said. “We’re exposed and AI is just starting.”

Other committee members including U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) still questioned the platforms’ ability to moderate misinformation and other harmful content. 

“Your platform has become a killing field for the truth, isn’t it?” Kennedy said. “You don’t show them both sides, do you? You just keep pushing their hot buttons.”

Most of the companies have expressed support for some form of federal regulation. However, what they each support — and to what extent — varies. Snap has endorsed the proposal called the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which would require platforms to take more measures to prevent minors from being exposed to harmful content. And on Wednesday, Yaccarino said X supports the STOP CSAM Act, a bill that would allow victims of online sexual exploitation to sue social media platforms.

When the CEOs didn’t answer U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) after he asked if they’d support a bill called the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, he retorted: “Let the record reflect a yawning silence from the leaders of the social media platforms.”

Various consumer rights groups used the hearing to publish their own statements about the topic. Fight For The Future described lawmakers’ legislation as “misguided” and said senators seem “more interested in creating sound bites for TV than the actual work of legislating.” Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers union juxtaposed Zuckeberg’s quotes with Meta’s actions and bought ad space on Politico’s website in collaboration with several other groups. Newtown Action Alliance, a nonprofit against gun violence, called on Graham to also support legislation to end legal immunity for the gun industry. 

Tech execs also took time to tout their past, present and future efforts to improve their platforms. For example, Chew said TikTok plans to invest $2 billion in trust and safety efforts this year for U.S. users. Meanwhile, Yaccarino said X suspended 12.4 million accounts in 2023, up from 2.3 million accounts Twitter removed in 2022. She also said 850,000 reports were sent in 2023, which was eight times more than Twitter did in 2022.

Instead of requiring platforms to require parents to upload an ID for every platform, Zuckerberg suggested lawmakers pass legislation to require app stores run by Apple and Android to be the place for parents to verify IDs. But When U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) asked if platforms are harmful, Zuckerberg said he disagreed with the characterization.

“In order for us to succeed, we have to acknowledge these basic truths,” Ossoff replied.

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