Senators castigated Meta Platforms Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other technology executives Wednesday over child sexual exploitation issues on social media, saying the companies have reaped profits, failed to regulate themselves and left children without proper protections.
The hearing transformed into a moment of reckoning of sorts for the company officials, with lawmakers contending that the platforms have harmed children and not protected kids from online dangers like drug dealers and sextortion, leading to their deaths.
“Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don’t mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said. “You have a product that’s killing people.”
The confrontation garnered applause and cheers from a packed committee room that included families pushing for Congress to act, many of them holding photographs of loved ones who had been harmed by social media.
Executives representing TikTok, Discord, Snapchat and X, the platform previously known as Twitter, also appeared before lawmakers. Meta owns Facebook and Instagram. Committee members questioned the executives on whether they supported bills the committee had advanced to stem social media harms.
Senators spent large portions of the hourslong hearing teeing off on the companies, and largely rejecting rhetoric from the officials who stressed their online safety efforts and sought to underscore their commitment to providing safe platforms.
At one point in the hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked Zuckerberg about whether he’s compensated any of the victims.
“I don’t believe so,” Zuckerberg said.
Hawley replied: “Why not? Don’t you think they deserve some compensation for what your platform has done? Help with counseling services? Help with dealing with the issues that your services caused?”
Zuckerberg said that the company’s “job is to make sure that we build tools to help keep people safe.”
And moments later, Hawley invited Zuckerberg to address families at the hearing who had children who were harmed by social media. “You’re on national television. Would you like now to apologize to the victims who have been harmed by your products?” Hawley said.
Zuckerberg stood up, turned around and addressed the crowd. “No one should go through the things your family have suffered, and this is why we invested so much and are going to continue doing industry-leading efforts to make sure that no one has to go through the types of things your family has had to suffer,” Zuckerberg said.
Senators on the panel argued that the technology companies can act without fear of civil liability thanks to a part of the law known as Section 230, which generally prevents providers from being liable for information that originates from a third party.
Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said the law has largely remained unchanged for decades, allowing Big Tech to grow into a massively profitable industry.
Other lawmakers agreed and said the victims of social media platforms have not been able to seek justice in court.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said lawmakers have heard complaints about issues involving social media and drug dealing, bullying and harassment and blackmail.
“And we are sick of it. It seems to me there is a problem with accountability because these conditions continue to persist. In my view, Section 230, which provides immunity from lawsuit, is a very significant part of that problem,” he said.
Graham said the courthouse doors should be opened to give Americans who have been wronged a route for accountability.
“Until you do that, nothing will change. Until these people can be sued for the damage they’re doing, it is all talk,” Graham said.
One bill introduced by Graham and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would remove blanket immunity from federal civil law regarding child sexual abuse material, the lawmakers say. But the bill appears stuck in the legislative process, and for months has been waiting for a floor vote after being approved in committee last year.
Protecting children online has been a consistent point of bipartisan support on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which last year approved several other measures on the subject.