Meta, TikTok and X CEOs grilled on child exploitation by US lawmakers

“They’re responsible for many of the dangers our children face online,” US Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who chairs the committee, said in opening remarks. “Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk.”

Jaime Puerta, of Santa Clarita, California, holds a picture of his son Daniel Joseph Puerta-Johnson, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Photo: AP

In a heated question and answer session with Mark Zuckerberg, Republican Missouri Senator Josh Hawley asked the Meta CEO if he has personally compensated any of the victims and their families for what they have been through.

“I don’t think so,” Zuckerberg replied.

“There’s families of victims here,” Hawley said. “Would you like to apologise to them?”

Parents attending the hearing rose and held up pictures of their children. Zuckerberg stood as well, turning away from his microphone and the senators to address them directly.

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“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered,” he said, adding that Meta continues to invest and work on “industry-wide efforts” to protect children.

But time and time again, children’s advocates and parents have stressed that none of the companies are doing enough.

“Meta’s general approach is ‘trust us, we’ll do the right thing’, but how can we trust Meta? The way they talk about these issues feels like they are trying to gaslight the world, said Arturo Bejar, a former engineering director at the social media giant known for his expertise in curbing online harassment who recently testified before Congress about child safety on Meta’s platforms.

“Every parent I’ve met with a kid under 13 is afraid of when their kid is old enough to be in social media.”

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, speaks directly to parents and family members during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Wednesday. Photo: TNS

Hawley continued to press Zuckerberg, asking if he would take personal responsibility for the harms his company has caused. Zuckerberg stayed on message and repeated that Meta’s job is to “build industry-leading tools” and empower parents.

“To make money,” Hawley cut in.

South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, echoed Durbin’s sentiments and said he is prepared to work with Democrats to solve the issue.

“After years of working on this issue with you and others, I’ve come to conclude the following: social media companies as they’re currently designed and operate are dangerous products,” Graham said. He told the executives their platforms have enriched lives but that it is time to deal with “the dark side”.

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Beginning with Discord’s Jason Citron, the executives touted existing safety tools on their platforms and the work they have done with non-profit groups and law enforcement to protect minors.

Snapchat had broken ranks ahead of the hearing and began backing a federal bill that would create a legal liability for apps and social platforms who recommend harmful content to minors. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel reiterated the company’s support on Wednesday and asked the industry to back the bill.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said TikTok is vigilant about enforcing its policy barring children under 13 from using the app. CEO Linda Yaccarino said X, formerly Twitter, does not cater to children.

“We do not have a line of business dedicated to children,” Yaccarino said. She said the company will also support Stop CSAM Act, a federal bill that make it easier for victims of child exploitation to sue tech companies.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to discuss child safety online on Wednesday. Photo: AP

Yet child health advocates say social media companies have failed repeatedly to protect minors.

“When you’re faced with really important safety and privacy decisions, the revenue in the bottom line should not be the first factor that these companies are considering,” said Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of Design It For Us, a youth-led coalition advocating for safer social media.

“These companies have had opportunities to do this before they failed to do that. So independent regulation needs to step in.”

Republican and Democratic senators came together in a rare show of agreement throughout the hearing, though it is not yet clear if this will be enough to pass legislation such as the Kids Online Safety Act, proposed in 2022 by Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.

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Meta is being sued by dozens of states that say it deliberately designs features on Instagram and Facebook that addict children to its platforms and has failed to protect them from online predators.

New internal emails between Meta executives released by Blumenthal’s office show Nick Clegg, president of global affairs, and others asking Zuckerberg to hire more people to strengthen “well-being across the company” as concerns grew about effects on youth mental health.

“From a policy perspective, this work has become increasingly urgent over recent months. Politicians in the US, UK, EU and Australia are publicly and privately expressing concerns about the impact of our products on young people’s mental health,” Clegg wrote in an August 2021 email.

The emails released by Blumenthal’s office do not appear to include a response, if there was any, from Zuckerberg. In September 2021, The Wall Street Journal released the Facebook Files, its report based on internal documents from whistle-blower Frances Haugen, who later testified before the Senate.

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Facebook whistle-blower tells US Senate the social network can change but clearly not on its own

Facebook whistle-blower tells US Senate the social network can change but clearly not on its own

Meta has strengthened its child safety features in recent weeks, announcing earlier this month that it will start hiding inappropriate content from teenagers’ accounts on Instagram and Facebook, including posts about suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.

It also restricted minors’ ability to receive messages from anyone they do not follow or are not connected to on Instagram and on Messenger and added new “nudges” to try to discourage teens from browsing Instagram videos or messages late at night. The nudges encourage kids to close the app, though it does not force them to do so.

Google’s YouTube is notably missing from the list of companies called to the Senate Wednesday even though more kids use YouTube than any other platform, according to the Pew Research Centre. Pew found that 93 per cent of US teens use YouTube, with TikTok a distant second at 63 per cent.

If you have suicidal thoughts or know someone who is experiencing them, help is available. In Hong Kong, you can dial 18111 for the government-run Mental Health Support Hotline. You can also call +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page.

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