'I’m sorry for everything...' Facebook's Zuck apologizes to families at Senate hearing
Meta boss told in social media safety probe: 'Your product is killing people'
Executives from the top social media companies faced contentious, sometimes contemptuous, questioning from the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in a hearing titled: Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis.
Senate lawmakers made it clear they're displeased with how social media firms Discord, Meta, Snap, TikTok, and X fail to adequately deal with the online exploitation and abuse of minors. These concerns were raised in a similar Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on February 14, 2023, though without the participation of social media platform CEOs.
This time top brass attended, thanks to subpoenas issued last year. Jason Citron, CEO of Discord; Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta; Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap; Shou Chew, CEO of TikTok; and Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X (formerly Twitter) took turns reading prepared remarks. They then endured sometimes withering questioning from senators who were perhaps mindful that 2024 is an election year.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-Il), chair of the Judiciary Committee in his opening remarks called out each org for failing to address online child exploitation and abuse.
Discord has been used to groom, abduct, and abuse children
"Discord has been used to groom, abduct, and abuse children," he said. "Meta’s Instagram helped connect and promote a network of pedophiles. Snapchat’s disappearing messages have been co-opted by criminals who financially sextort young victims. TikTok has become a ‘platform of choice’ for predators to access, engage, and groom children for abuse, and the prevalence of CSAM on X has grown as the company has gutted its trust and safety workforce."
This was also a bipartisan grilling, with members of both sides of the chamber lining up to critique the CEOs.
"Social media companies, as they're currently designed and operate, are dangerous products," said Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), ranking Judiciary Committee member, in his opening statement. "They're destroying lives, threatening democracy itself. These companies must be reined in or the worst is yet to come."
May damage your health
This is now a widely held view among politicians. In May last year the US Surgeon General issued a report that found social media poses a mental health risk to young people.
Last week, New York City declared social media a health hazard for its effect on children. New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a speech, "Companies like TikTok, YouTube, Facebook are fueling a mental health crisis by designing their platforms with addictive and dangerous features. We cannot stand by and let big tech monetize our children's privacy and jeopardize their mental health."
Actually, we can – we've allowed social media firms to operate for years with minimal consequences for social harms and there's no end in sight.
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The senators' discussion frequently touched on proposed legislation to make social media safe for children and teens, such as the Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act of 2023 (STOP CSAM Act). And concerns were again expressed about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes internet services from liability for user activity if the platform makes a reasonable effort to prevent abuse.
In anticipation of the hearing, several advocacy groups – Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and Fight for the Future – wrote to the Committee to warn that, "some of the legislative proposals before the Senate including STOP CSAM Act of 2023, EARN IT Act of 2023, and KOSA 2023 bear this risk and threaten to jeopardize all internet users’ access to information and privacy."
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- Meta's fix for teen online mental health? Hold Apple and Google responsible
While calling for social media safety legislation may win public attention, crafting legislation isn't necessarily easy. In 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act to protect children online but the law, scheduled to take effect on July 1 was temporarily blocked in September 2023 by a judge who found that it probably violates the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, hundreds of school districts and most State Attorneys General are suing Meta and other social media firms based on claims of mental health harms. Investors are suing too, based on revelations from former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Zuck it up, Mark
Zuckerberg in prepared remarks [PDF] defended his company's online safety efforts and pushed back on reports that link social media use to mental health problems.
His assertions followed the Judiciary Committee's release of 90 pages of internal email messages showing that Meta refused to allocate resources to address online safety. These documents were cited in the lawsuit filed by 33 State Attorneys General last October and support claims that Zuckerberg and other top brass knew about the harms of social media and failed to take action.
Zuckerberg didn't get off easily. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo) dismissed Zuckerberg's claims as more of the same. "Your own study says you make life worse for one in three teenage girls, you increase anxiety and depression, and you're here testifying to us in public that there's no link," Hawley said. "You've been doing this for years."
Hawley brushed off Zuck's assertion that Meta is working seriously to address online safety. "Nonsense. Your product is killing people," he said, and went on to challenge Zuckerberg to set up a compensation fund with his own money to provide reparations to victims of social media harm, some of whom were present in the audience.
You've made billions of dollars on the people sitting behind you here. You've done nothing to help them
"Your job is to be responsible for what your company has done," said Hawley. "You've made billions of dollars on the people sitting behind you here. You've done nothing to help them. You've done nothing to compensate them. You've done nothing to put it right. You could do so here today and you should, you should, Mr Zuckerberg."
Hectored by Senator Hawley, Zuckerberg actually turned to face the social media victims and their families in the audience and apologized. "I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through," he said. "It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have."
TikTok ticked off
Hawley subsequently went to ask TikTok CEO Shou Chew why his platform should not be banned in the US, based on TikTok's ties to China and the Chinese Communist Party. "Your company has been surveilling Americans for years," he said. "Your platform is basically an espionage arm for the Chinese Community Party."
Chew, who is from Singapore, disagreed with Hawley's characterization, but probably didn't change the minds of any of those who have been trying for years to outlaw TikTok or force the divestment of its US business.
In short the hearing – which you can replay yourself below – generated more heat than light. Advocacy org Fight for the Future said that while it's clear Big Tech is harming kids, legislators appear to be more interested in publicity than making sound law.
"Today’s hearing shows once again that many Senators are actively helping Big Tech harm kids because they’re more interested in creating sound bites for TV than the actual work of legislating," said Fight for the Future director Evan Greer.
"We remain ready to work with lawmakers to address the dangerous flaws in current legislative proposals. There is tremendous urgency. We need lawmakers to listen to both child protection and human rights experts to craft legislation that will actually reduce harm and that does not violate the First Amendment. We need legislation that protects all kids, not legislation that throws some of the most vulnerable kids in our society under the bus." ®