Senators grilled the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snap, Discord and X Wednesday in a heated hearing about harm posed to teens and kids online.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced most of the pressure from the panel, which focused primarily on the ways teens and children can experience harm through Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.
But each CEO faced questions about the policies they have in place to mitigate the risks of online sexual exploitation, as well as the spread of harmful content that promotes suicide, self-harm and eating disorders over the roughly four and a half hours of questioning.
The packed hearing room was filled with parent and survivor advocates who held up photos of victims and put pressure not just on the companies, but also on the senators to add regulation that would hold the companies accountable.
Zuckerberg faces brunt of criticism
Zuckerberg faced the brunt of criticism from senators on both sides of the aisle over how the company that owns Facebook and Instagram poses risks to children online.
In one of the most heated exchanges of the day, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) repeatedly questioned Zuckerberg about Meta internal research revealed by whistleblower Frances Haugen, which found Instagram negatively impacted teens, especially teen girls.
Zuckerberg said the report was mischaracterized, but Hawley continued to press him and pressured him to apologize to the parent advocates at the hearing.
Zuckerberg turned his back to the Senate panel to face the audience filled with parents holding photos of children they said were victims of harms of social media.
”I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through. The things that your families have suffered and this is why we invest so much and we are going to continue doing industry wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer,” he said.
Meta is no stranger to the Senate hot seat and Zuckerberg spent much of the hearing responding to pieces of previous testimony from Meta executives. Senators said the company’s testimony has been misleading, citing what they learned through additional internal documents obtained through whistleblowers and litgation brought by state attorneys general.
Zuckerberg faced consistent pressure over the impact of Meta’s platforms on teen mental health and how the company was aiming to appeal to younger users.
In his opening statement, Zuckerberg said the “existing body of scientific work has not shown a casual link between using social media and young people having worse mental health outcomes.”
As Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) closed the hearing, he told Zuckerberg his “opening statement on mental health needs to be explained.”
“Because I think it doesn’t make any sense,” he added.
“There isn’t a parent in this room who had a child that’s gone through an emotional experience like this that wouldn’t tell you and me they changed right in front of their eyes,” he added.
TikTok faces heat over China ties
Chew took heat from lawmakers about the company’s ties to China. The video-based social media app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has previously faced bipartisan scrutiny over concerns about data privacy and national security.
TikTok developed Project Texas, an initiative to essentially wall-off American user data from the rest of the company, in an effort to assuage lawmaker concerns.
However, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that workers with Project Texas have sometimes been instructed to share data with other parts of the company or with ByteDance.
When pressed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on the report, Chew disputed the account and suggested that “there are many things about the article that are inaccurate.”
He also emphasized that TikTok has never shared any user data with the Chinese government.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) later cast doubt on Chew’s assertion.
“Now you said earlier … ‘We have not been asked for any data by the Chinese government, and we have never provided it,’” Cruz said. “I’m going to tell you — and I [said] this when you and I met last week in my office — I do not believe you. And I’ll tell you the American people don’t either.”
Hawley also pointed to the Journal article, arguing that the app’s protective measures fall short.
“It’s not protected. That’s the problem, Mr. Chew. It’s not protected at all,” Hawley said. “It’s subject to Chinese Communist Party inspection and review.”
“Heaven knows I’ve got problems with everybody here, but your app, unlike any of those, is subject to the control and inspection of a foreign hostile government that is actively trying to track the information and whereabouts of every American they get their hands on,” he added.
“Your app ought to be banned in United States of America for the security of this country.”
Senators pull no punches for CEOs
Senators were aggressive in their questions to the tech CEOs. While most of the wrath was aimed at questions for Meta and TikTok, lawmakers went down the line to question the CEOs about their company’s policies.
Both Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Hawley accused Zuckerberg of running a product that is “killing people.”
“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,” Graham said, drawing cheers from the hearing room.
Along with pushing Zuckerberg to apologize to parents, Hawley also aggressively questioned the Meta CEO about the wealth he’s earned on the “families sitting behind you.”
“Your job is to be responsible for what your company has done,” Hawley added. “You’ve made billions of dollars on the people sitting behind you here. You’ve done nothing to help them. You’ve done nothing to compensate them. You’ve done nothing to put it right. You could do something today, and you should. You should, Mr. Zuckerberg.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also blasted Zuckerberg over internal communications that showed the Meta CEO referring to the company’s younger users by their lifetime value.
“Would you say that life is only worth $270?” Blackburn asked, adding, “I mean, I listen to that. I know you’re a dad. I’m a mom. I’m a grandmom. And how could you possibly even have that thought? It is astounding to me.”
Schumer pressured to call votes on tech bills
The pressure is now on Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to call votes on legislation discussed Wednesday that aims to mitigate harm to young users.
The Judiciary Committee advanced five bills aimed at stopping the exploitation of kids online last year, including the STOP CSAM Act, which would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to allow victims of child sexual abuse material to sue tech companies for content posted by third parties.
The bill advanced with unanimous support, highlighting the bipartisanship.
“[Parents] cannot cope, they cannot handle this issue alone. They’re counting on us as much as they’re counting on the industry to do the responsible thing,” Durbin said.
“Leave with the determination to keep the spotlight on us to do something. Not just hold a hearing, bring out a strong crowd of supporters for change, but to get something done. No excuses, no excuses. We’ve got to bring this to a vote … that’s the moment of reckoning,” he added.
In addition to the bills before the Judiciary Committee, the Senate Commerce Committee advanced two other bills: COPPA 2.0, which would update data privacy rules for minors; and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). Those bills advanced out of the committee with bipartisan support last year and in the previous Congress, but Schumer has brought none of them up for a full Senate vote.
A spokesperson for Schumer said in a statement that children’s online safety is a “priority” for the leader.
“While we work to pass the supplemental and keep the government funded in the coming weeks, Leader Schumer will continue to work with the sponsors of the online safety bills to ensure the necessary support,” the spokesperson said.