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Tech leaders to face Senate panel on sexual exploitation dangers

Judiciary Committee says it is 'hauling in' CEOs representing Meta, TikTok, Discord, Snapchat and X

Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., right, and ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talk during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in September.
Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., right, and ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talk during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee are expected Wednesday to confront technology executives about child sexual exploitation issues on social media, a topic that’s fueled lawmaker alarm and driven bipartisan calls for congressional action.

Members of the panel have delivered searing criticism of social media platforms, saying big tech companies have failed to police themselves while children have been left without proper protections online.

Executives representing some of the most well-known social media platforms are scheduled to appear before the committee, including Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta Platforms Inc., which owns Facebook and Instagram. Executives representing TikTok, Discord, Snapchat and X, the platform previously known as Twitter, also are set to appear.

“We’re hauling in five Big Tech CEOs for questioning on how to protect kids online,” the Senate Judiciary Committee account wrote on social media Monday. “All of them have had exposés on their issues with child sexual exploitation. They have a MAJOR role to play in addressing this crisis.”

Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the panel, in a joint statement in November said that hearing from the CEOs of large social media companies will help inform the panel’s push to address online child sexual exploitation.

“It’s at the top of every parent’s mind, and Big Tech’s failure to police itself at the expense of our kids cannot go unanswered,” the two said.

Last year, lawmakers raised concerns with Meta about reporting in The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper reported that Instagram “helps connect and promote a vast network of accounts openly devoted to the commission and purchase of underage-sex content.”

In a floor speech after the story was published, Durbin said with platforms like TikTok and Instagram, there are only a few clicks between children and online predators who are looking to exploit them.

The Illinois Democrat also said social media is making the youth mental health crisis in America worse, pointing to depression and anxiety to body image issues.

“We had testimony from parents — one sad story after another — of children who because of sextortion, bullying, harassment, goading, took their own lives. The mothers sat in the front row, each holding a color photo, a school photo, of their kids,” Durbin said.

“With tears in their eyes, they begged us to do something to protect these kids and to protect America from this exploitation,” he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has at times been defined by partisan acrimony, but protecting children online has been a point of bipartisan cooperation, with lawmakers from both parties supporting legislation that aims to address the issue.

The panel already advanced multiple bills on the issue. One bill introduced by Durbin would bolster reporting requirements to the CyberTipline, which is operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and would expand protections for child victims in federal court.

Another bill introduced by Graham and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would amend a part of the law known as Section 230, which in general prevents providers from being liable for information originating from a third party.

The lawmakers say the legislation would remove blanket immunity from federal civil law regarding child sexual abuse material, as well as establish the National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention, which would be tasked with developing recommended best practices that providers could use when it comes to preventing and reducing the online sexual exploitation of children.

Some lawmakers argue the big technology companies wield vast political power, making change more difficult. Blumenthal has said “Big Tech is the next Big Tobacco.”

And Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has described big technology companies as the “biggest, most powerful lobby in the United States Congress.”

“They successfully shut down every meaningful piece of legislation every year,” Hawley said at a subcommittee hearing in November. “I’ve only been here for four years, and I have seen it repeatedly in the short time I have been here.”

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