Jan 31, 2024 - Technology

Sparks fly as senators push CEOs to support online safety bills

TikTok's Shou Zi Chew, X's Linda Yaccarino and Meta's Mark Zuckerberg sit facing senators.

Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senators used a fiery Wednesday hearing with Silicon Valley's top executives to attempt to win commitments on specific bills aimed at protecting kids online.

Why it matters: Legislators spent nearly four hours grilling Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg along with the CEOs of TikTok, X, Snap and Discord on the sexual exploitation of children on their platforms — but outrage directed at social media from both sides of the aisle has yet to produce new laws to solve the problem.

The big picture: Senators used the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to demand the CEOs endorse their proposed bills — right now.

  • The tech executives ran down a laundry list of policies they're implementing to help protect children on their platforms.
  • But lawmakers remained unsatisfied and called for further regulation, highlighting a half-dozen bills that have remained stalled.
  • "I just want to get this stuff done. I'm so tired of this. It's been 28 years. And the reason they haven't passed is because of the power of your companies," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said.

X's Linda Yaccarino announced during the hearing that X endorses Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin's Stop CSAM Act, becoming the first social media platform to do so.

  • The Stop CSAM Act would expand protections for child victims in federal court.
  • X also endorsed the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require platforms to enable the strongest safety settings by default.

Between the lines: The crowd in the room was tense — and loud. The audience, which Durbin said is the largest he has seen, played a key role in applying pressure.

  • The families of children whose parents say they were exploited online and activists filled the room, audibly reacting to exchanges between lawmakers and executives.
  • When Zuckerberg said "the existing body of scientific work has not shown any causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health," audience members laughed.

Zuckerberg played defense, pushing back against lawmakers more strongly today compared to his many appearances at past hearings.

  • When Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Meta was trying to become "the premier sex trafficking platform," Zuckerberg interrupted to call that "ridiculous."
  • But when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) demanded that Zuckerberg deliver a personal apology to the families who filled the seats behind him, the CEO stood up, turned around, and — with his mike either turned off or not working — did just that.

Our thought bubble: Senators kept blaming the tech executives for the Hill's failures. Tech lobbying is powerful on Capitol Hill — but lawmakers are ultimately responsible for transcending the influence of money in politics and getting legislation passed.

What's next: More bills are on the way.

  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) announced during the hearing that he will introduce the Protect Act, requiring websites to verify users' ages and to create a process for removing nonconsensual pornographic imagery.

Editor's note: A version of this story was published first on Axios Pro. Unlock more news like this by talking to our sales team.

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