On Wednesday, January 31, 2024, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing where five CEOs of major social media platforms were subpoenaed. Mark Zuckerberg was in attendance representing Meta, Linda Yaccarino for X Corp. (formerly known as Twitter), Evan Spiegel for Snap Inc., Jason Citron for Discord Inc., and Shou Chew for TikTok Inc. Throughout the hearing, these CEOs were questioned about their platforms’ ability to protect children from online exploitation. Both Democrats and Republicans came together, agreeing that children’s safety is undeniably threatened on these platforms, therefore putting youth in danger.

The hearing mentioned five bills whose goals aim at keeping children safe online and opening the doors to hold tech companies accountable for the children they attract to their websites. The STOP CSAM Act (Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act) introduced by Chair Durbin (D-IL), would make tech companies responsible and accountable for the content on their platforms. The EARN IT Act (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act) introduced by Ranking Member Graham (R-SC) and the PROTECT Act (Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to End the Exploitation of Children Today) introduced by Senator Hawley (R-MO) were also discussed. The Kid Online Safety Act introduced by Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) and Senator Blackburn (R-TN), aims to ensure that the content children are exposed to is appropriate for minors, such as preventing the advertisement of illegal content to minors and allowing parents to filter the content their children see. Lastly, the SHIELD Act introduced by Senator Klobuchar (D-MN), would criminalize the nonconsensual distribution (or threatened distribution) of explicit material.

Another bill that was not mentioned during the hearing but CWLA endorses and has similar goals is the Invest in Child Safety Act introduced by Senator Wyden (D-OR). This bill would be able to direct billions of funding dollars towards reducing child exploitation. This bill would aid in the prevention of children being targeted in the first place, but would also work to target the predators who create and share child sexual abuse online. This closely aligns with the goals of the hearing.

Currently, tech companies are not held liable for what is posted on their platforms and are protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This protection means that regardless of what is posted or deemed “acceptable” on their platform, they are not liable. Unfortunately, this also means that families of children who have fallen victim to online exploitation and the victims themselves are unable to receive justice.

Some CEOs were reluctant to fully back the proposed bills, often mentioning agreement with “certain parts” but hesitating without further discussion. However, there was a common agreement in the room that children are in danger, and this is a crisis that demands attention. Every senator who spoke expressed the urgency of the issue, emphasizing that mere talk about the situation is insufficient; concrete steps and actions must be taken.

Various ideas were discussed during the hearing on how to protect children’s safety online, including age and identity verification, parental controls, limiting screen time, and providing access to mental health resources. All proposed bills and safeguards aim to increase the safety and security children experience when accessing information online, with the hope of reducing the number of children being groomed on social media platforms. The discussion also touched on parental controls and the role parents play in the current crisis. However, as they currently exist, these controls can be easily bypassed and overlooked. Additionally, they may be convoluted for parents to figure out.

Children need help as major social media platforms become increasingly dangerous for them. Young children are falling victim to sexual exploitation, grooming, revenge porn, and mental health issues. Senator Hawley urged Zuckerberg to apologize to the families who were victims of harmful social media, and the CEO of Meta complied by rising from his chair and apologizing to the families in attendance.

There is unanimous agreement that significant steps need to be taken to prioritize children’s safety.

By Carlin Whalen, Policy Intern