The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday grilled several Big Tech CEOs, including TikTok and X executives, on their platforms’ commitment to online safety for children and teens, but reserved their harshest criticisms for Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
During the nearly four hour-hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) accused Zuckerberg of having “blood on his hands” in reference to teen suicides connected to Instagram use, and Sen. John Kennedy (R-La) told Zuckerberg that he is “wandering around in the foothills of creepy” in connection to Meta’s collection of users’ personal data to build its algorithm.
In a dramatic moment of the hearing, Zuckerberg stood up and directly apologized to the families of online child abuse victims, including relatives of teens who had died by suicide, who were present at the hearing.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” he said. “No one should go through the things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”
Zuckerberg’s apology came after Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) pressed him on whether Meta had compensated the families of teens whose suicides have been linked to social media use — a phenomenon that researchers say is backed by evidence but needs more data before establishing a clear correlation.
Lawmakers are hoping that the testimony from Meta, Snapchat, Discord, X, and TikTok will facilitate the passage of several bills aimed at regulating online content that is potentially harmful to children or contributes to sexual exploitation. But experts agree that these bills are unlikely to pass in the few remaining months of this congressional session.
Lawmakers want Big Tech CEOs to publicly support their bills that are unlikely to pass soon
During the hearing, several lawmakers asked the social media executives for a “yes or no” response on whether they supported bills regulating children’s experience on social media, such as The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and The Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution (SHIELD) Act. This line of questioning “gets to the heart of this hearing,” wrote NBC deputy tech editor Ben Goggin, with lawmakers hoping to publicly “extract” legislative support from Big Tech CEOs who are assembling an “army of lobbyists” in D.C. to slow many of these initiatives, Issue One reported. Even as Congress as long accused social media platforms of harming children, lawmakers are yet to agree on a solution, and observers are worried that there is “very little room in an election-year schedule to get any of the bills to a floor vote,” Politico reported.
TikTok’s China links dragged back into spotlight
TikTok CEO Shou Chew got an icy reception Wednesday, appearing before Congress a little less than a year after he was grilled about TikTok — and China-based parent company ByteDance’s — link to the Chinese Communist Party. Lawmakers appeared less concerned about TikTok’s $2 billion investment into enhancing child protection and focused more on a Wall Street Journal report citing employees who said data is sometimes shared with ByteDance despite TikTok’s stand-alone U.S. arm dubbed “Project Texas.”
Meanwhile, in a separate House hearing Wednesday, FBI director Christopher Wray testified that ByteDance “is effectively beholden to the Chinese government,” who, he added, could control data collection on millions of users, manipulate the platform’s algorithm for influence operations, or even control software on devices on which TikTok is installed, Semafor’s Morgan Chalfant reported.
Zuckerberg lays blame on Apple and Google who were absent from the hearing
Apple and Google were notably missing from the hearing, meaning they “didn’t have to answer for [their] dominance in smartphone operating systems,” Semafor’s Reed Albergotti reported. One academic told the Washington Post that Google’s absence from the hearing was “baffling” considering YouTube’s immense popularity with children and teens. During his testimony, Zuckerberg said that Apple and Google are ultimately responsible for verifying users’ ages and getting parental consent because they run the largest app markets. “Meta wants to ensure that the playing field between it and its competitors remains level” despite Zuckerberg’s platforms having more than 3 billion daily users, TechCrunch wrote.