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Senators condemn tech companies over online child sexual abuse

Senators condemn tech companies over online child sexual abuse

Lawmakers on Wednesday condemned the chief executives of Meta, TikTok, Concerns have increased.

In a highly charged 3.5-hour hearing, members of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee raised their voices and repeatedly rebuked five tech leaders — who run online services that are very popular among teens and young children — for putting profits over their well-being. To give priority to youth. Some said the companies had blood on their hands and that users would die waiting to make changes to protect children. At one point, lawmakers compared tech companies to cigarette manufacturers.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said, “Every parent in America is horrified by the garbage that is being thrown at our children.”

Tech chiefs, some of whom came forward after being forced to do so by subpoenas, said they have invested billions to strengthen security measures on their platforms. Some said they support a bill that strengthens privacy and parental controls for children, while others pointed to rivals' mistakes. All the officials emphasized that they themselves were parents.

In a heated exchange with Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, Meta Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg stood up and addressed dozens of parents of online child sexual abuse victims.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve gone through,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “No one should have to go through the things that your families have gone through.” He did not say whether Meta's platform played any role in that suffering and said the company is investing in efforts to prevent such experiences.

The bipartisan hearing expressed growing concern over the impact of technology on children and teens. Last year, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy identified social media One reason for the youth mental health crisis, More than 105 million online images, videos and material related to child sexual exploitation were flagged in 2023 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the federally designated clearinghouse for imagery. Parents have blamed these platforms for promoting cyberbullying and child suicide.

The issue has united Republicans and Democrats, with lawmakers pushing back on how Silicon Valley companies treat their youngest and most vulnerable users. Some MPs, raising a case that has outraged parents, have called for measures to be taken and introduced bills to stop the spread of child sexual abuse material and hold platforms accountable for protecting young people Have done.

Tech giants are facing increasing domestic and global scrutiny over their impact on children. Some states have enacted laws requiring social media services to verify the ages of their users or take other steps to protect young people, though those rules have faced legal challenges. Online security laws have also been approved in the European Union and Britain.

The White House also considered this on Wednesday. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “there is now indisputable evidence” that social media contributes to the youth mental health crisis.

Still, if history is any guide, the questioning of tech leaders on Wednesday may ultimately not be too much. Meta executives have testified 33 times since 2017 on issues such as election interference by foreign agents, antitrust and the role of social media in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — but no federal laws have been passed to hold tech companies accountable. Has gone. Dozens of bills have failed after partisan bickering over details and lobbying efforts by the tech industry.

David Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University Law School and former head of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, compared congressional actions on technology to the cartoon “Peanuts.”

He said, “Congress constantly questions technical legislation that seems necessary, but I feel like Charlie Brown – every time he wants to kick a football, Lucy snatches it away.”

The New York Times has found that the federal government has also not followed through on existing laws that could provide more resources to combat online child abuse. Remarkably, law enforcement funds Has not kept pace with staggering growth Reports of online abuse, even though Congress was authorized to release more funding.

On Wednesday, Mr. Zuckerberg testified before Congress for the eighth time. TikTok Chief Executive Shaw Chew was back on the witness stand less than a year after appearing at a hearing. Snap Chief Executive Evan Spiegel, X Chief Executive Linda Yaccarino and Discord Chief Executive Jason Citron testified for the first time after being subpoenaed by lawmakers.

Lawmakers have focused on the harmful effects of social media on children since 2021, when a whistle-blower at Meta, Francis Haugen, disclosed internal documents that showed the company I Knew Its Instagram Platform Was Making Body Image Issues Worse Among teenagers. The Senate Judiciary Committee has held multiple hearings with tech executives, sexual exploitation experts and others to highlight dangerous online activity for children.

Before Wednesday's hearing began, lawmakers released internal emails between top Meta executives, including Mr. Zuckerberg, that showed his company had rejected calls to increase resources to deal with child safety issues.

The hearing, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, opened with a video from victims of child sexual abuse who said tech companies have failed them. In a rare show of compromise, Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee took turns accusing tech leaders of knowing about the harm their platforms are causing to children.

The companies' “consistent pursuit of profit over basic safety and security has put our children and grandchildren at risk,” said Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, chairman of the committee.

At one point, Senator Hawley told Mr. Zuckerberg, “Your product is killing people.”

Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Chew attracted the most attention, with lawmakers warning them not to support legislation on child protection. After lawmakers pressed Mr. Spiegel over the problem of drug sales on Snapchat, he apologized to parents whose children have died of fentanyl overdoses after purchasing drugs through the platform.

“I am deeply saddened that we are not able to prevent these tragedies,” he said, adding that Snap blocks drug-related search terms and works with law enforcement.

Lawmakers also focused on proposals that would expose platforms to lawsuits by gutting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that protects Internet companies from liability for content on their sites.

“Nothing is going to change unless we open the doors of the courts,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota. “Money matters stronger than anything we talk about here.”

At times, lawmakers wandered into areas unrelated to child safety. Mr Chew, in particular, faced questions about how TikTok's owner, ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, handles the data of American users. He was also pressured over a report that a TikTok lobbyist in Israel resigned this week over allegations that the platform was discriminating against Israelis.

YouTube, the most popular app for teens, was conspicuously absent from the hearing. According to the Pew Research Center, seven out of 10 teens use YouTube daily. TikTok is used daily by 58 percent of teens, followed by Snap at 51 percent and Instagram at 47 percent.

According to a report produced by Google, in 2022, YouTube reported more than 631,000 pieces of content to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Apple was also absent. The company has angered child protection groups for reneging on a 2021 promise to scan iPhones for content offensive to children.

YouTube and Apple were not invited to the hearing. A Judiciary Committee spokesman said the five executives who testified represented a group of different companies.

Just weeks before Wednesday's hearing, some tech companies announced changes to their children-related services. Meta introduced strict control On direct messaging and more parental controls for teens. Snap announced its support for the Kids Online Safety Act, proposed legislation to restrict data collection on children and tighten parental controls on social media.

In front of the Capitol building on Wednesday, a nonprofit critical of big tech displayed cardboard cutouts of Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Chew, sitting atop a mountain of cash while clinking glasses of champagne. Inside the hearing room, parents held photographs of victims of online child sexual abuse.

Mary Roddy, a parent in the hearing room, said she lost her 15-year-old son Riley in 2021 after he was sexually abused on Facebook Messenger. Since then she has been fighting to create laws to protect children online.

“Companies are not doing enough,” he said. “Enough is enough.”

kate conger, Michael H. Keller, mike isaac, sapna maheshwari, Natasha Singer And Michael D. Shear Contributed to the reporting.

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2024/01/31/multimedia/31child-safety-hearing-pkzl/31child-safety-hearing-pkzl-facebookJumbo.jpg

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