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Bay Area social media executives face Senate panel on child safety | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey | #hacking | #aihp


Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, leaves a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on child safety online on Wednesday. Republican senators piled onto social media executives for failing to protect children online.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Senators on both sides of the aisle criticized the heads of large social media sites during a Washington, D.C., hearing on Wednesday for failing to adequately protect childrens’ safety online.

Both California senators — Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler — took a measured approach toward the technology executives during the nearly four-hour-long Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

Padilla used his allotted seven minutes of time to query them about their business practices, safety tools and parental controls. The tech representatives present were Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, formerly Facebook, which also owns Instagram; Linda Yaccarino of X, formerly Twitter; Evan Spiegel of Snap; Shou Chew of TikTok; and Jason Citron of messaging site Discord.

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But Republican senators — and a few Democrats — took a more confrontational approach, rarely letting the executives respond to questions in complete sentences and delivering heated lectures about what they claimed was a failure to protect children online.

“You have blood on your hands,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to the executives, singling out Zuckerberg in particular.

During his questioning, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., demanded to know if TikTok CEO Chew, a Singaporean citizen who previously lived in China, was a member of the Chinese Communist Party — an echo of McCarthy-era hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Republicans have unsuccessfully sought to ban TikTok in some states, citing its ownership by Chinese company ByteDance and raising concerns about the potential for the Chinese government to cull information about Americans from the app.

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Addressing Zuckerberg in elevated tones, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, displayed a board showing how Instagram flagged content that might contain images of child sexual abuse. It included the options “Get resources” or “See results anyway.”

“Mr. Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” he demanded.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., asked Zuckerberg, to the Meta chief’s apparent befuddlement, “Does your user agreement still suck?”

Padilla’s questioning was mild by comparison. He asked each executive in turn how many young people used their sites, how they advertised their safety tools to young people, and how many accounts had parental controls turned on.

Spiegel, of Snap, was the only one who came prepared with those numbers. Zuckerberg and others promised to follow up with specifics and outlined how their sites advertise safety controls to users. Yaccarino of X repeatedly emphasized that less than 1% of its users were between the ages of 13 and 19 and said during the hearing that “X is not the platform for children and teens.”

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Both Democratic and Republican senators demanded yes or no answers on whether the executives supported proposed legislation intended to protect children from sexual exploitation and exposure to other dangers online.

Most prevaricated, although Yaccarino of X committed to supporting the Stop CSAM Act, short for Child Sexual Abuse Material.

The committee has already approved three bills that would expand protections for victims of online abuse in federal court, weaken companies’ legal shield when illegal content appears on their sites, and make it easier to demand the companies take down unlawful content.

CNBC reported that Graham and committee Chairman Richard Durbin, D-Ill., will work together to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law that protects companies from liability for illegal content posted on their websites.

Separately, California and 32 other states sued Meta last year, alleging the company broke the law by purposely addicting young people to its social media products for profit.

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Senators noted that some of the companies present had taken steps to bolster their content moderation practices just days before the hearing.

X recently said it would hire 100 content moderators after gutting much of that staff following Elon Musk’s takeover of the company, and Meta promised last week to block messages being sent to children from people they aren’t connected with on the site.

The hearing took place in an emotionally charged atmosphere. Parents and families were present who said they had lost children to drugs purchased through Snap, or to suicide or other harms the families chalked up to exposure to material on social media sites. 

Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, forced Zuckerberg to stand and face the assembled families and apologize for the alleged harms his products had caused them.

Butler, too, elicited an apology from Spiegel, the Snap CEO, and resorted to some visual aids. 

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She displayed a picture of a young girl whose face had been altered by a social media filter to show what it would look like after plastic surgery. The intention was to illustrate the negative effects on young peoples’ body image the sites could have.

Like Padilla, Butler went one by one and asked the assembled CEOs the same question, demanding to know if each had ever sat down with families and talked to them about the design of their apps and how to make them safer.

All replied in the affirmative, including Zuckerberg. “That’s interesting, Mr. Zuckerberg,” Butler said. “We talked about this last night, and you gave me a very different answer. …You said you had not.” But she said she would not belabor the point.

Reach Chase DiFeliciantonio: chase.difeliciantonio@sfchronicle.com; Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice


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