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Gulf remains for tech CEOs, Senate on kids’ online safety

Testy hearing produces only scattered support for new provisions

Ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, and Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., conduct the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” on Jan. 31.
Ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, and Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., conduct the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” on Jan. 31. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Tech executives gave little ground when it came to endorsing bipartisan legislation aimed at addressing online child safety, even as senators lambasted their handling of the issue at a packed Senate committee hearing.

The well-televised confrontations played out last week, as lawmakers blamed social media platforms for harming children and failing to regulate themselves. The vast lobbying power of large technology companies, lawmakers argued, have made passing solutions more difficult.

The technology CEOs, some of whom appeared voluntarily and others appeared after being subpoenaed, stressed their online safety efforts, told lawmakers they support parts of proposals and said they were interested in working with Congress. But many sought to sidestep questions, and several declined to endorse legislation when lawmakers tried to pin them down.

“We’re not prepared to support it today,” Discord Inc. CEO Jason Citron told the panel when asked if he would support a bill that lawmakers say would remove blanket immunity for service providers from federal civil law regarding child sexual abuse material.

Citron’s response came during a tense back and forth with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the lawmakers who introduced the measure. The bill would amend a part of the law known as Section 230, which in general prevents platforms from being liable for information originating from a third party.

Graham, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, turned attention to Section 230 during his exchange with the Discord CEO, asking if he supports removing those liability protections for social media companies.

Citron said the provision needs to be updated, adding that “it’s a very old law.”

“Do you support repealing it so people can sue if they believe they’re harmed?” Graham asked.

Citron replied: “I think that Section 230 as written, while it has many downsides, has enabled innovation on the Internet, which I think has largely been…”

Graham then cut in. “Thank you very much,” he said. “So here you are — if you’re waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we’re going to die waiting.”

Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, sought to sidestep when Graham asked if the company supports the measure, known as the EARN IT Act.

“We strongly support the collaboration to raise industry practices to…,” she said, before being cut off by Graham.

“Do you support the EARN IT Act? Yes or no? We don’t need double speak here,” Graham said.

“We look forward to supporting and continue our conversations,” Yaccarino said.

“Ok, so I’ll take that as no,” Graham said.

Graham said it’s time that the families of victims can sue on behalf of their loved ones.

“Nothing will change until the courtroom door is open to victims of social media,” he said.

Safeguard, duty of care provisions

Two of the five executives who appeared before lawmakers — Evan Spiegel, CEO of Snap Inc., and Yaccarino — did come out in support of legislation that would establish new protections for children online.

Under the measure, social media services that are used by children would be required to provide kids with “easy-to-use safeguards” to protect personal data and limit the ability of others to communicate with the child.

The legislation also includes a duty-of-care provision stipulating that social media services will take reasonable measures in their operation to mitigate mental health disorders.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., one of the lawmakers who introduced the bill, pressed the tech executives about whether they support it.

Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok, said the company could support the legislation with some changes.

“In its present form, do you support it, yes or no?” Blumenthal asked.

“We are aware that some groups have raised some concerns. It’s important to understand …” Chew said before being cut off by Blumenthal.

“I’ll take that as a no,” the senator said.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the measure, saying it raises constitutional concerns and it infringes on free speech rights.

“These are nuanced things,” Meta Platforms Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said after Blumenthal pressed for an answer on if he would endorse the bill. “I think that the basic spirit is right. I think the basic ideas in it are right, and there are some ideas that I would debate how to best implement.”

Blumenthal, who has said the Big Tech industry is the next Big Tobacco, countered that Congress could not count on social media companies or other technology firms as a group to back the measure.

“And in the past, we know it’s been opposed by armies of lawyers and lobbyists. We’re prepared for this fight,” he said.

Meta Platforms reported spending $4.6 million on lobbying in the fourth quarter of last year, and a filing shows the company lobbied on child online safety bills.

Other legislation

Despite the lack of commitment from the tech chiefs, the senators used the high-profile hearing to rally support for legislation that’s languished.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last year passed a series of bills with bipartisan support, but several major ones have not gotten a floor vote.

One of those bills, introduced by Senate Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, would bolster reporting requirements to the CyberTipline, which is operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. It would also expand protections for child victims in federal court.

Another bill introduced by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would establish criminal liability at the federal level for people who share nude or sexually explicit images without consent, according to Klobuchar’s office. Multiple tech chiefs expressed support for the goal of the legislation but held back a full endorsement when Klobuchar asked about it.

Citron, the Discord executive who was subpoenaed to appear, said he supports the portion that would strengthen the ability of law enforcement to investigate crimes against children and would want to have more conversations with Klobuchar about the bill.

“I’m much more interested in if you support it, because there’s been so much talk at these hearings and popcorn throwing and the like,” Klobuchar said. “And I just want to get this stuff done. I’m so tired of this. It’s been 28 years, what, since the internet.”

“We haven’t passed any of these bills because everyone’s double talk, double talk,” she said.

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