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‘Blood on your hands’: US Senators grill big tech CEOs on abuse of children on social media

Intense hearing attended by families of children who suffered abuse on social media platforms

Katie Hawkinson,Eric Garcia
Thursday 01 February 2024 10:47 GMT
Mark Zuckerberg apologises to families attending Senate hearing

Several big tech CEOs gathered in Washington, DC on Wednesday to testify before the Senate on child safety policies.

The CEOs of Twitter/X, TikTok, Discord, Meta and Snap testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois. The hearing began with video testimonies from those targeted by abusers on social media, as well as their families.

“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’s killing people,” senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said at the hearing.

In his introduction, Mr Graham called on politicians to repeal Section 230, a portion of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. The section protects social media companies by providing immunity to civil liability based on third-party content or the removal of content under some circumstances.

Lindsey Graham tells Mark Zuckerberg he has ‘blood on his hands’

Mr Durbin said both the CEOs and politicians hold responsibility, calling on Congress to act. His call comes after senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, introduced an updated version of the SHIELD Act in 2023. Her bill would criminalise the non-consensual transmission of intimate depictions and visual depictions of nude minors.

TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg were the only CEOs who appeared voluntarily, Mr Durbin said. Discord CEO Jason Citron, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, and Twitter/X CEO Linda Yaccarino attended because of subpoenas, he said.

At the hearing, Ms Yaccarino and Twitter/X became the first major social media company to endorse the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment (STOP CSAM) Act, Mr Graham said.

Conversely, Mr Citron of Discord defended his platform’s practices in keeping children safe, saying its teen safety program lets them know if they are engaging in inappropriate conversation with someone so they can report and block a user.

But Mr Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the committee, railed against the tech companies for stonewalling legislation.

“If you wait on these guys to solve the problem, we’re going to die waiting,” Mr Graham said.

Discord CEO Jason Citron faced intense questioning from senator Lindsey Graham (AP)

Senators from both parties have pushed to pass the Kids Online Safety Act. The legislation would require that online social media platforms take measures in the design and operation of products used by children to “prevent and mitigate” various harms that may come from use such as sexual exploitation and online bullying.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican who co-sponsored the Kids Online Safety Act, said Mr Zuckerberg had referred to children’s lifetime worth as $270 in internal messaging.

“Children are not your priority,” Ms Blackburn said. “Children are your product.”

“It appears that you’re trying to be the premier sex-trafficking site,” Ms Blackburn later said.

Mr Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, that’s ridiculous.”

The bill would also require platforms to provide safeguards such as restricting access to the personal data of children younger than 18 and giving parents and guardians tools to supervise minors’ use of the platform. Platforms would also be required to disclose specified information such as details regarding personalised recommendation systems and advertising targeted at individual minors.

Social media platforms must also allow schools, guardians, parents and minors to report certain harm and refrain from advertising age-restricted products such as gambling or tobacco to minors. They would also be required to annually report any foreseeable risks to minors.

Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, was met with applause as he grilled Mr Zuckerberg on the impacts of Meta platforms on teenagers’ mental health.

“You know full well your product is a disaster for teenagers,” Mr Hawley told the Meta CEO as he was met with applause and cheers.

Mr Hawley asked if Mr Zuckerberg had compensated the families of online abuse victims or if he had apologised. His questions were met with cheers and applause.

“Do you know who is sitting behind you?” Mr Hawley asked the Meta CEO. “You’ve got families from across the nation whose children are either severely harmed or gone.”

Many members of the audience stood up and held pictures of children and loved ones impacted by abuse as Mr Zuckerberg stood up and addressed them.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” he said. “Nobody should have to go through what your families have suffered. This is why we have invested so much and are going to continue industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things your families have suffered.”

Mark Zukerberg apologised to families of victims of online abuse after intense questioning from Senator Josh Hawley (AP)

Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut also confronted Mr Zuckerberg with a series of emails from Meta’s President of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg. In the 2021 emails, Mr Clegg said the company was not on track to succeed on its “core wellbeing topics.”

“Nick Clegg was asking you, pleading with you, for resources to back up the narrative to fulfil the commitments,” Mr Blumenthal told Mr Zuckerberg.

Other portions of the testimony seemed to veer off topic.

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, also inexplicably seemed to conflate Singaporean citizenship with Chinese citizenship when he repeatedly asked Mr Chew of TikTok about his citizenship.

“Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” Senator Cotton asked.

“Senator, I’m Singaporean. No,” Mr Chew responded.

Cotton asked again: “Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party?”

“No, Senator. Again, I’m Singaporean,” Mr Chew said.

Mr Durbin concluded the hearing with a call for immediate action to protect children from abuse on social media.

“Is our technology greater than that humanity? I think that is a fundamental question. What I would add to it is: are our politics greater than technology?”

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