Agreement on The Hill: Bipartisan Senators Grill Big Tech CEOs Over Child Sexual Exploitation

January 31st, 2024 7:08 PM

Big Tech companies found themselves in deep trouble on Wednesday, following a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on social media harms and rampant sexual exploitation of children online.

Five social media CEOs faced probing questions from lawmakers on their policies to stop the sexual exploitation of children online. X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, Discord CEO Jason Citron, TikTok CEO Shou Chew and META CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced scorching questions from fired-up senators pushing for the passage of legislation to protect the safety of children online. The nearly four-hour-long hearing began cordially but quickly became tense as senators from both parties grilled the tech executives on their companies’ policies that are deemed detrimental to children.

The hearing began with a heartfelt compilation of victims who described the horrific ordeal they said they were subjected to. “How many more kids will suffer because of social media?” a mother asked. “It’s not too late to do something about it,” a survivor added. Among those present were some of the victims, including the family members of a 17-year-old who said their son died of suicide after he became a victim of sexual extortion on Instagram, one of the Zuckeberg-owned platforms.

One of the key exchanges occurred when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) pressed Zuckerberg on whether he had apologized to the victims. “Would you like to do it now?” Hawley asked Zuckerberg, to which he responded by turning around and directly apologizing to victims attending the hearing. “I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” Zuckerberg told the attendees. “No one should 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 your families have had to suffer.”

Rose Bronstein, the mother of a 15-year-old who killed himself after being bullied online, rebuked Big Tech’s lack of decisive action during an interview on Fox News’s The Story With Martha MacCallum. “All they care about is their profits,” Bronstein said of the social media executives. “Mark Zuckerberg's apology really didn't mean anything because at the same time, children are still being harmed and children are still dying. So whatever protections these CEOs say they're putting in place, they’re not working.”

Among the issues posed by lawmakers was Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the federal law that has been interpreted by lower courts to broadly shield Big Tech companies from legal liability for criminal acts committed by social media users. While some of the tech executives voiced a willingness to back measures shielding children from exploiters, such openness went out of the window the moment they were pressed on whether Section 230 should be amended. 

Sen. John Kennedy (R-AL) caused the hearing room to break into laughter with his sarcastic remarks. “Mr. Spiegel, What does, ‘Yada, yada yada’ mean?’” Kennedy asked the Snap CEO, noting that actions speak louder than words. “I’ve heard a lot of yada-yada-yada-yadaing.” Later in the hearing, Kennedy called on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to bring legislation shielding children from exploiters. “What we’re going to have to do, and I say this with all the respect I can muster, is convince my good friend Sen. Schumer to go to Amazon, buy a spine online and bring this bill to the Senate floor,” Kennedy said.

Included among the bills currently being promoted by the Judiciary Committee are: the STOP CSAM Act, EARN IT Act, SHIELD Act, Project Safe Childhood Act and the REPORT Act. Led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), the STOP CSAM Act, promotes accountability through the creation of a “CyberTipline” and demands Big Tech platforms publish annual reports detailing their efforts against exploitative content.

The EARN IT Act, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) with bipartisan co-sponsorship from 23 senators, creates exceptions to Section 230 to remove Big Tech’s “blanket immunity” from civil and state criminal liability. The SHIELD Act, introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and John Cornyn (R-TX), and co-sponsored by six senators, provides law enforcement with tools to prosecute individuals who distribute explicit content without consent. 

The Project Safe Childhood Act—introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), along with Cornyn and Klobuchar—would modernize the technology used to prosecute online child exploitation crimes. The bill has 19 co-sponsors. 

The REPORT Act pushes for the installation of new measures to help strengthen the reporting of online crimes. 

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