The CEO’s of five leading social media companies showed up to Congress today where they were grilled by Senators on both sides of the aisle for more than three hours. At the center of the questioning was concern over children, specifically the spread of child sex abuse images on the various sites.
Child sex images and videos are more widely available than ever, according to data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nonprofit that tracks such material for the U.S. government. The organization said reports of the content on online platforms grew from 32 million in 2022 to a record high of more than 36 million in 2023. It’s found a persistent foothold on major tech platforms like Facebook, despite years of efforts to eliminate it.
Senators convened the hearing — focused on child sexual abuse material, or CSAM — amid a groundswell of support for stronger protections to prevent children from becoming exposed to harmful content online or addicted to major platforms. But the session did little to shed light on how the proposals under discussion could get signed into law in the near term.
Senate Judiciary Committee leaders said they hoped the hearing would help build momentum for a package of bills aimed at curbing child abuse material online, including by allowing victims to sue companies for facilitation and by making it more difficult for platforms to dismiss such lawsuits. The latter seeks to narrow industry protections afforded under Section 230, the besieged legal shield that immunizes digital services from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content, which senators repeatedly attacked Wednesday.
There were a number of highlights in the hearing today, starting with this exchange between Sen. Hawley and Mark Zuckerberg. Hawley asked Zuckerberg if he wanted to apologize to the parents of children who had committed suicide as a result of harassment on social media and, to everyone’s surprise, Zuckerberg got up, turned around and did offer a kind of apology.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “No one should go through the things that your families have suffered.” He did not address whether Meta’s platforms had played a role in that suffering and said the company was investing in efforts to prevent such experiences.
Here’s the clip.
Hawley just called on Zuckerberg to apologize directly to the the families in the audience of victims who were impacted by child sexual exploitation on Meta platforms.
Zuck then gets up and does it. pic.twitter.com/YJWCcZDAC7
— Greg Price (@greg_price11) January 31, 2024
There was another exchange between Zuckerberg and Sen. Ted Cruz which didn’t make Zuck look too good. The core of Cruz’s point was a warning screen which Instagram would put up whenever individuals were searching for material that might include child sexual abuse. Sen. Cruz’s staff put up an enlarged image of the warning which suggested the results might contain such material and then invited them to “See Results Anyway.” “Mr. Zuckerberg, what the hell were you thinking?” Cruz asked.
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 31, 2024
Did you notice how Zuckerberg refused to say how many times Instagram had served up this warning? When pressed all he would say is that he wasn’t sure the company had tracked that particular data. This is dumb. Instagram surely knows how often it served up that warning and no doubt Zuckerberg could pull that number up in a matter of minutes if he really wanted to do so.
Finally, here’s the full exchange between Sen. Hawley and Zuckerberg. This ends with the clip above of Zuckerberg’s apology but before that, Sen. Hawley confronts Zuckerberg with a bunch of information about the harm being done to young women on his sites and Zuckerberg really has nothing to offer in response.
Here’s Senator Josh Hawley’s entire exchange with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg. It’s very much worth your time.
Inviting Zuckerberg to stand up and apologize to the families behind him is getting a lot attention (and rightfully so), but the whole back-and-forth was outstanding. pic.twitter.com/8PCF6M1jxZ
— Curtis Houck (@CurtisHouck) January 31, 2024