CEOs from some The biggest social platforms will appear before Congress on Wednesday to defend their companies against criticism that they have done too little to protect children and teenagers online.
The hearing, set to begin at 10AM ET, is the latest in a long line of congressional tech hearings that have been going on for years, with new regulations or policy changes to show for the effort.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will host the latest hearing, which will pull in five chief executives from across the country to face a barrage of questions from lawmakers. Tech companies sometimes get by by sending in legal counsel or a policy executive, but the latest hearing includes Meta's Mark Zuckerberg, X (formerly Twitter) CEO Linda Yacarino, TikTok's Shou Chew, Discord's Jason Citron and Snap's Evan Spiegel. Zuckerberg and Chew were the only executives who agreed to voluntarily appear at the hearing without a subpoena.
While Zuckerberg is often a veteran of long, meandering efforts to hold tech companies to account, Wednesday's televised hearing was a first for Yacarino, Spiegel and Citron. Snap and X have sent other executives (or their former chief executive) in the past, but Discord — a chat app originally designed for gamers — is making its first appearance in the hot seat.
Discord is a very popular tool among young people, but the platform may be mixed with the rest in light of a report from NBC News last year about sextortion and CSAM. The company's inclusion is particularly notable given the absence of popular algorithm-driven social networks like YouTube — often inexplicably absent from these events — and Amazon-owned livestreaming giant Twitch.
Wednesday's hearing, titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” covers much more ground than its narrow nomenclature suggests. Lawmakers are likely to dig into a series of concerns — recent and ongoing — about how social platforms are failing to protect their young users from harmful content. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, there are serious concerns about Instagram publicly connecting sex predators with marketers of child sexual abuse ads, and NBC reported that Discord has facilitated dozens of incidents of grooming, kidnapping and sexual abuse of minors in recent years.
Beyond concerns that social platforms don't do enough to protect children from sexual abuse, lawmakers are expected to press the five tech CEOs on other online safety issues, such as fentanyl sellers on Snapchat, white supremacist extremism burgeoning on X and the prevalence of self-harm. Suicidal Content on TikTok. And given X's embarrassing failure to prevent the recent explosion of apparently AI-generated Taylor Swift images, and the company's enthusiastic response, expect some Taylor Swift questions, too.
Tech companies are likely to push back, pointing to lawmakers for platform and policy changes in some cases designed to make these apps safer, and in others more designed to placate Congress for this investigation. In the case of Meta, it seems an update to Instagram and Facebook last week prevented teens from receiving direct messages from users they didn't know. As with many changes from companies like Meta, this raises the question of why these protections are being added on the fly instead of being built into the product before being offered to young users.
KOSA is big
This time, it's part of a concerted push to pass the Children's Online Safety Act (KOSA), a controversial law that forces tech platforms to take extra steps to protect children from harmful content online. Despite some revisions, the bill's myriad critics warn that KOSA would aggressively clean up the internet, encourage censorship and harm young LGBTQ people in the process. Some bills Conservative supporters — Co-sponsor Sen. — including Marsha Blackburn — allege that KOSA should be used to effectively remove transgender content for young people online.
LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD expressed its concerns about the hearing and related legislation in a statement to TechCrunch, urging lawmakers to “carefully craft proposed solutions” to avoid negatively impacting the queer community.
“The US Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing revealed that anti-LGBTQ lawmakers may have unfoundedly attempted to equate age-appropriate LGBTQ resources and content with inappropriate content,” GLAAD said.
“… Parent and youth action is needed to address the harmful business practices of big tech platforms, but age-appropriate information about the existence of LGBTQ people should not be grouped with such content.” The ACLU and the digital rights organization EFF also opposed the legislation, while other groups were concerned about the bill's implications for encryption. Similar concerns followed the Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act (now known as “COPPA 2.0”), the STOP CSAM Act and the EARN IT Act, adjacent bills aimed at protecting children online.
Not all of the bill's proponents are conservative. KOSA currently enjoys bipartisan support, and the skepticism expressed by its critics has not resonated with many Democratic lawmakers on the board. The bill is also supported by organizations that promote child safety online, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and Fairplay, a nonprofit focused on protecting children online.
“Cosa is a necessary corrective to the toxic business model of social media platforms that rely on driving kids down deadly rabbit holes and driving engagement by any means necessary, including running features that expose young people to exploitation and abuse,” Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, said in a statement to TechCrunch. Said. Fairplay has also organized a pro-COSA coalition of parents who have lost children to cyberbullying, drugs bought on social platforms and other online harm.
As of last week, KOSA's reluctant backer was one of the companies the bill was trying to control. Snap split from its peers last week to throw its support behind KOSA, which is intended to endear the company to regulators who could steer its fate — or perhaps more importantly, siphon the lion's share of the fate of Snap's dominant rival, TikTok. Screen time in youth.
Snap's decision to break ranks with Meta, then Facebook, its tech peers and its own industry group in KOSA to support a controversial pair of laws known as FOSTA-SESTA in 2018 echoes a similar move. That law is said to be a solution. Online sex trafficking was legalized, but a few years later FOSTA-SESTA was better known for driving sex workers away from safe online spaces than disrupting sex trafficking.