Senate Child Safety Hearing Seems to Be About Everything But Child Safety

The panel of tech CEOs at the Senate Judiciary hearing.

CEOs of the largest social media companies in the United States testified in front of Congress Wednesday before the lawmakers launched into questions of their own. The hearings covered everything from human trafficking to Communist China and nearly every political topic in between. Everything, that is, except for how to protect children online.

Testifying Wednesday were Meta co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, X (formerly Twitter) CEO Linda Yaccarino, TikTok CEO Shou Chew, Snap co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel, and Discord CEO Jason Citron. The posturing began here, as each tech leader boasted the positive effects of their platforms or why they take child safety so seriously. Yaccarino brought up her position as a mother and daughter of a police officer. Spiegel highlighted Snapchat’s desire to get away from potentially negative aspects of social media use like images that could haunt a user forever or the risk of embarrassment resulting from getting enough “likes” or other forms of validation.

The tech CEO touted their parental controls, vigilance in ensuring users under 13 don’t get access, and efforts made to make their respective social media sites safer for teens. Multiple CEOs claimed “industry-leading” efforts to protect children in one way or another, seemingly trying to one-up whichever executive spoke before them. Notably, Yaccarino claimed X was only a 14-month-old company, removing the social media platform’s lengthy history prior to its rebranding.

Again, on the tech CEOs’ parts, numbers were obscured, often noting how users under 18 make up a small portion of the total count on a service without ever having to say exactly how much those small percentages add up to.

But the plot of the hearing, supposedly meant to center around child safety, was further lost once it came time for politicians to ask questions. The lawmakers went into diatribes regarding whichever issue best fit with their platforms.

TikTok CEO Shou Chew at the Senate Judiciary hearing.

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas went after TikTok for being owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Hawley asked TikTok CEO Chew why his app should not be banned in the United States because of data sharing risks.

Cotton went further, asking Chew a series of barbed questions: How long did Chew previously live in China? What countries is he a citizen of? What countries does he have passports from? Since his wife and children are U.S. citizens, has he applied to be one as well? Has he ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party? Does he agree with President Joe Biden’s comments that Xi Jinping is a dictator?

Chew replied that he is from Singapore, the only country he is a citizen of and of which he holds a passport. He added that he felt it would be inappropriate for him to comment on world leaders. And, no, Chew says he as a Singaporean has not in fact ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

Nowhere in this particular line of questioning was child safety prioritized.

Audience members of the Senate Judiciary hearing on child safety online hold up photos of loved ones.

Liability for harm, especially against children, like sexual extortion, the viewing of sexually explicit content or posts about self-harm, or the ability to buy and sell drugs, came up multiple times. Hawley asked Zuckerberg to apologize to the families in attendance who felt their children suffered due to the social media companies with executives in attendance. Hawley further asked whether Zuckerberg would personally set up a victims’ compensation fund.

Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Meta CEO Zuckerberg whether victims who feel they’ve been harmed by his platforms, which include Instagram and Facebook, should sue him over it. The CEO neutrally replied that they can, to which Graham said they can and should.

“It is now time to make sure that the people who are holding up the signs [those who lost loved ones from possible harm when using social media] can sue on behalf of their loved ones. Nothing will change until the courtroom door is open to victims of social media,” Graham said pushing for the Earn It Act, which could limit liability protections regarding exploitation of children on social media. The bill is controversial among groups like the ACLU, which argues it could incentivize censorship and put user data at risk by making it easier to decrypt securely sent messages.

Graham, notably felt very differently when it came to limiting liability to sue gun manufacturers, saying, “It’s truly absurd that a gun manufacturer or dealer could be sued because a criminal uses their product in the commission of a crime. It’s the criminal who needs to be held accountable for their actions, not the gun manufacturer.”

The difference in opinion over whether a criminal uses a gun to harm someone or a criminal sexually extorts a person over social media, leading the victim to commit suicide embodies the emptiness of the hearing.

It created a pop for those present and made for a usable soundbite. But it’s unclear what solution it came closer to.

A wide shot of the Senate Judiciary hearing.

This, the lack of true solutions, seems to be at the heart of the issue.

While the hearing showed a truly bipartisan effort, the senators can’t seem to determine what the solution to the issue of child safety online is. Some claimed it lies in increasing liability to incentivize social media companies to improve protections. Some, like Sen. Laphonza Butler, took aim at filters that mimic plastic surgery or lighten skin. Sen. Mazie Hirono advocated for making it so users under 18 cannot post content at all.

Children who had experienced harm in some way from using social media were relegated to political props without members of the Senate or the tech leaders present ever finding a way to truly make substantial change.

Many of the lawmakers said they could not wait for the social media companies to make change, but it seems the same can be said of those lawmakers in turn.

Image credits: CSPAN