During an unusually emotional hearing on Wednesday, senators spent hours trying to get a group of five tech CEOs to confront the harms their platforms have caused and submit to more checks on their power.
The Senate Judiciary Committee invited the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snap, X, and Discord to face the families of children who’d died following cyberbullying, sexual exploitation, or other harmful events on their platforms. They asked why Section 230, the law that shields online platforms from being held liable for their users’ posts, should stop these families from facing them in court.
The CEOs expressed condolences for the families hurt on their services but reiterated the work and investment they’ve already made to keep users safe. Advocates and lawmakers were left unimpressed by the CEOs’ remarks — but emboldened to push forward their proposals. “We can do this,” Senate Judiciary Ranking Member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said to Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) at a press conference after the hearing. “Working with you, I pledge my complete and total support to go to the floor of the United States Senate and ask for a reckoning.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), too, sounded optimistic after the hearing at a rally of supporters for the Kids Online Safety Act. The bill, which he leads with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), would create a legal duty of care for large platforms to make their services safe for kids.
“I can guarantee you, we will win this fight for the Kids Online Safety Act,” Blumenthal said, exuding the kind of confidence that’s a rarity in Washington, given the difficulty of passing legislation in a deeply divided Congress.
A package of five kids online safety bills have already passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with unanimous votes, including the EARN IT Act, which seeks to weaken Section 230 protections, and the Cooper Davis Act, that would require platforms to report known illicit drug trafficking on their sites to the Drug Enforcement Administration. KOSA, which was introduced in another committee, already has the support of nearly half the Senate.
Lawmakers and parents seemed mostly unimpressed with the CEOs’ performance. Graham called it “pitiful” and “borderline bullshit.” Even a direct apology from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to fall flat. At the prompting of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who asked if Zuckerberg had apologized to the families of social media victims, the CEO stood up and faced the back of the room, where several rows of parents sat with pictures of their kids.
“I’m sorry for everything you have all been through,” Zuckerberg said. “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-leading efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer.”
The apology rang hollow to several of those who’d attended. It “means nothing,” said Rose Bronstein, who carried a picture of her son Nate, who she said died by suicide as a teenager after being cyberbullied on Snapchat. “Empty, empty, empty.”
Maurine Molak, whose son David died by suicide at age 16 after she said he’d been cyberbullied on Instagram, called Zuckerberg’s remarks a “basic apology.” While he was sorry for what the families went through, she said, “he didn’t take any responsibility for that. And it was shallow, in my opinion. And it was hurtful to me because what happened to David happened on his platform.”
Former Meta employee Arturo Bejar — who previously testified before a Senate subcommittee after blowing the whistle on what he felt were inadequate steps by the company to protect kids — said he was “glad” Zuckerberg apologized, “but that is by far not enough.” Instead, he said, Zuckerberg should speak with each of the parents present and understand what happened with their kids on the platforms. “Each of those things should be a project that makes things better,” Bejar said. “A company with 80,000 people can afford to do that. It’s a matter of prioritization.”
One thing tech companies could do to show their goodwill, suggested Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of youth-led coalition Design It For Us, is to “get their trade organizations to back off” from lobbying against the bills. Of the witnesses, only Snap broke ranks before the hearing from peers and its own trade group NetChoice by endorsing KOSA. During the hearing, X CEO Linda Yaccarino also offered her support for the bill. Microsoft, which was not summoned to the hearing, endorsed KOSA the day before.
Lawmakers and advocates have consistently pointed to tech lobbying as a barrier to legislation making it to the president’s desk. But KOSA has also been opposed by a range of civil liberties organizations that warn it could lead to heightened surveillance and a crackdown on LGBTQ content online. The bill’s broad definition of harm to children has been hotly debated, as has its choice to allow state attorneys general to enforce the rule, particularly as many states are attempting a severe legal crackdown on transgender adults and children. Stricter age verification, a prerequisite for many reforms, would likely make the internet less private for everyone. And internet law experts have warned that weakening Section 230 would encourage tech platforms to either remove large amounts of legal content or take a hands-off approach that limits their liability.
Digital advocacy group Fight for the Future, which opposes KOSA, critiqued the hearing for favoring “sound bites” over substantive issues like privacy and antitrust reform. “Hundreds of thousands of young people and others have spoken up, calling for legislation that protects privacy rather than leads to censorship,” said director Evan Greer in a statement. “But these bills’ sponsors have so far rejected common-sense fixes that would ensure these bills crack down on Big Tech’s harmful business practices rather than trampling free expression, privacy, and human rights.”
Blumenthal told reporters on Tuesday he was still engaged in discussions about how to tweak KOSA, including on the state attorneys general provisions. Still, it’s clear many lawmakers on the committee feel that changing Section 230 is the most foundational step. “You will never get change until you open up the American courtroom,” Graham, who advocates ending Section 230, said at the press conference after the hearing. “Everybody holding up a photo, you should be allowed to go into court and make your case. When that day happens, they’ll come up here in earnest to talk with us about how to bring this to an end.”