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March 3, 2024

Tech Giants Taken to Task Over Online Child Safety Failures

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Jan 31, 2024

Top executives from major tech companies appeared Wednesday before a Senate committee to answer allegations that their platforms have harmed children and done far too little to protect young users.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas, Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel, and X (formerly Google) Senior Vice President Linda Yaccarino faced a barrage of criticism from senators over revelations that their products and algorithms can be addictive and toxic for kids.

Executives Forced to Defend Business Practices

The hearing marked the first time top officials from Snapchat and TikTok have testified in Congress. They joined the CEOs of YouTube and Instagram parent company Meta, both of whom have appeared previously to address allegations that their platforms harm children.

“The fact that they are all appearing indicates the depth of concern in Washington with children’s safety online following a series of revelations about past practices,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, chair of the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee.

In his opening remarks, Blumenthal stated that the tech companies have “successfully ducked and dodged responsibility” for protecting children for years.

“We have seen appalling real-life consequences as a result, almost unimaginable harm done to children.” – Senator Richard Blumenthal

Blumenthal cited teen suicide, plummeting self-esteem among adolescent girls, and horrifying rates of online child sexual exploitation as examples of the real-world damage social media has inflicted.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, the panel’s ranking Republican, warned the companies that federal policies and regulation remain an option should their promises to police their platforms and institute safeguards ring hollow.

“Because time and time again, Big Tech has proven that your word is worthless,” she told the executives.

Lawmakers Zero in on Algorithms and Addictiveness

Much of the hearing focused on revelations brought to light by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021, which showed that the company knew Instagram made body confidence and mental health issues worse for teenagers, especially teenage girls.

Internal research leaked by Haugen showed that 13% of British girls and 6% of American girls blamed Instagram for suicidal thoughts.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary antitrust panel, cited that research in her rebuke of the tech platforms.

“We have heard revelations, whistleblower after whistleblower, about deception and harms knowingly inflicted on children and teens,” Klobuchar said.

Blumenthal stated that Big Tech’s algorithms and other features deliberately manipulate users and promote harmful, polarizing, and radicalizing content in order to maximize engagement and profits. He said this online environment contributes to depression, eating disorders, and even suicide among vulnerable young users.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee argued that tech companies have not done nearly enough to curb such issues through product design changes or content moderation.

Previous Congressional Actions Against Big Tech

Lawmakers have not been shy about pursuing legislation and other actions aimed at reining in tech companies:

  • Last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill required tech companies to regularly report data on how their products may harm children.

  • Bills proposed in 2022 and 2023 seek to curb tech companies’ liability protections without violating First Amendment rights.

  • In September 2023, senators proposed making tech platforms legally liable if their algorithmic recommendations cause harm to young users.

While previous hearings did not result in new laws, senators are hoping the growing momentum behind protecting children online will lead tech companies to finally take responsibility and make meaningful changes.

Lawmakers have also voiced support for the Children and Teens’ Online Protection Act (C-TOP), which would ban certain features and require transparency into how platforms impact young users. The bill could come up for a vote later this year.

Bill Status Key Provisions
C-TOP Act In committee Ban auto-play and infinite scroll for kids <16
Require impact studies and risk management strategies
Create advisory committee on best practices
Safe Tech Act Introduced in House Remove Section 230 protections related to child exploitation

“Self-Regulation Has Failed Miserably”

Throughout over 5 hours of questioning, senators made clear that self-regulation by tech companies has failed and more oversight is needed.

“Self-regulation has failed miserably,” Blumenthal said.

They pressed executives on why certain features like auto-play remain turned on by default instead of requiring users to opt in. Senator Blackburn demanded that algorithms stop recommending harmful videos.

“You’ve monetized danger to children,” Blackburn told the tech leaders. “So my question to each of you is, will you immediately turn off these auto-play and algorithmic recommendations for children and ban them until it can be verified through independent review that they do no harm?”

All the executives expressed openness to further oversight regulation while arguing that their platforms provide mostly safe and beneficial experiences for teens. They outlined steps they have taken to strengthen safeguards in recent years such as defaulting users under 16 to private accounts and limiting recommendations of potentially problematic content.

Meta’s Zuckerberg stated that his company is using AI to detect child exploitative content and has reporting flows for users of all ages if they encounter disturbing posts. TikTok COO Pappas said her company works to create age-appropriate experiences and gives parents better controls.

But such promises failed to satisfy senators, who made clear that concrete, measurable progress is the only thing that will stave off regulation.

“We’re way past the trust-us phase,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar.

What Comes Next?

With bipartisan frustration toward Big Tech at an all time high, substantial legislative action seems imminent unless social media platforms quickly revamp key features impacting kids.

Senator Blumenthal ended the hearing with a warning to the tech CEOs: “Change is going to come to Big Tech – the question is whether it comes on your terms or ours.”

Going forward, expect continued pressure in Congress through hearings and proposed regulation over issues like:

  • Age verification to keep kids off platforms meant for adults
  • Curtailing market influence and liability protections
  • Forcing transparency into recommendation algorithms
  • Studying social media’s impacts on vulnerable groups

Tech companies would be wise to preempt harsh mandates by voluntarily reassessing features that exploit human psychology to boost engagement. With child safety now firmly in the spotlight, half-measures and empty rhetoric will no longer suffice.

Sweeping reform finally appears imminent for an industry long resistant to change. For the sake of children’s wellbeing, tech executives must now back up apologies and promises with meaningful action.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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