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What We Learned As Big Tech Addressed Online Child Safety Concerns on Capitol Hill

4 MINUTE READ | February 1, 2024

What We Learned As Big Tech Addressed Online Child Safety Concerns on Capitol Hill

What We Learned As Big Tech Addressed Online Child Safety Concerns on Capitol Hill

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Abby Long

Abby is PMG’s senior managing editor, where she leads the company’s editorial program and manages the PMG Blog and Insights Hub. As a writer, editor, and marketing communications strategist with nearly a decade of experience, Abby's work in showcasing PMG’s unique expertise through POVs, research reports, and thought leadership regularly informs business strategy and media investments for some of the most iconic brands in the world. Named among the AAF Dallas 32 Under 32, her expertise in advertising, media strategy, and consumer trends has been featured in Ad Age, Business Insider, and Digiday.

Executive leaders from some of the world’s most influential tech companies were on Capitol Hill this week to address online child safety concerns in a hearing with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Across written testimonies and committee questioning, leaders from Meta, TikTok, Snap, X, and Discord shared insight into their online safety investments and policies as lawmakers advocated for decisive action and legislative progress as a means to prevent harm across digital platforms.

  • Lawmakers pressed executives from Meta, TikTok, Snap, and Discord to improve the accessibility of parental controls and content moderation systems while arguing for greater transparency and investment in trust and safety resources relative to a company’s revenue growth and cultural influence among teens. 

  • Ahead of the hearings, several companies announced new features and policies for supporting teens and underage users, including X’s plan to hire more trust and safety moderators that will be based in Austin, Texas, after its team was heavily impacted by layoffs last year. 

  • Senators questioned the witnesses on more than their company’s work in reducing child sexual abuse materials (CSAM) and focused too on new research about the harms of social media to teens’ mental health, proactive monitoring efforts, and the science behind content recommendation engines. 

Central to the hearing was bipartisan advocacy for new legislation, as several committee members asked witnesses to publicly commit their support to the individual legislation that makes up a recent package of bills dedicated to protecting online child safety and industry reform that had been recently unanimously passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In her opening remarks, X Chief Executive Officer Linda Yaccarino endorsed the Stop CSAM Act, becoming the first social media company to publicly commit its support for the legislation. This week’s hearing marked Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s eighth appearance in Congress and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s second to discuss issues of Big Tech’s algorithms, cultural influence, trust and safety policies. 

The package of bills includes,

  • The STOP CSAM Act, which will support victims of child sexual abuse materials online and add greater accountability and transparency for online platforms;

  • The SHIELD Act will work to ensure federal prosecutors have more effective tools to address the nonconsensual distribution of sexual imagery; 

  • The EARN IT Act, which reshapes legal liability standards by removing tech platforms' immunity from civil and criminal liability under child sexual abuse material laws and will establish a National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention; 

  • The Project Safe Childhood Act aims to modernize the investigation and prosecution of online child exploitation crimes; 

  • The REPORT Act combats the rise in online child sexual exploitation by establishing new measures and helping strengthen the reporting of those crimes to the CyberTipline. 

Calls for amending or repealing Section 230, which provides immunity to online platforms from civil liability for third-party and user content, were also a popular topic of discussion at the Senate committee hearing. Lawmakers expressed concern for a lack of industry standards for removing CSAM across platforms, with many wanting to wind down platform liability protections and introduce legal reforms that stop the spread of child abuse material. Unique to this hearing was the emotion and passion displayed by committee members surrounding the issue, as the hearing room was packed with advocacy groups and the families of victims. Several Senators called special attention to individual stories and the families in the room who were harmed by CSAM and online abuse. 

Throughout their line of questioning, lawmakers argued Big Tech companies were responsible for protecting children online and compared the harm that platforms pose to the tobacco industry and other companies that have faced regulatory scrutiny in the past. In response to the hearing, several platforms announced new features for enabling a safer online environment for teens, including stricter messaging settings on Instagram and Facebook and X's new investments in advancing detection mechanisms for CSAM in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

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After hours of questioning, Committee Chair Sen. Dick Durbin called the hearing to a close and advocated for a full Senate vote on the five bills that aim to address CSAM and combat child abuse on the internet. With the likes of Meta, X, Snap, Discord, and TikTok committing to updating policies for improving online child safety and new partnerships with child safety research and advocacy groups, we can expect to see further progress in addressing these trust and safety issues by both social platforms and Congress in the months ahead.

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