Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube were placed in the congressional hot seat for the first time. As lawmakers pressured big tech executives to reevaluate their actions, or lack thereof, towards protecting children online on Oct. 26. In a contentious hearing that lasted over three hours, senators brought up multiple concerns over privacy violations, inappropriate content, and the promotion of unsafe behavior to app users, particularly minors.
The Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security had also previously convened for the testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who released thousands of documents revealing the company’s mishandling of teen mental health, misinformation, and user safety. However, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, firmly urged the companies to hold themselves strictly accountable irrespective of other platforms.
“Being different from Facebook is not a defense,” Blumenthal said. “That bar is in the gutter. It’s not a defense to say that you are different.”
Sex, Drugs, and Algorithms
In spite of the explicit warning, the social media officials proceeded to offer procedures, initiative, and community guidelines. As a means to separate themselves from those same accusations. Jennifer Snout, Vice President of global public policy, presented the app as “an antidote to social media.”
Highlighting the automatic deletion of posts to protect privacy and the push for connecting people who already know each other.
“Our design protects our audience and makes us different,” Snout said. “When it comes to young people, we’ve made intentional choices to apply additional protections to keep them safe.”
Yet senators aimed attention at the inappropriate content exposed to teenagers through advertisements. Citing a case where staff members created a profile for a 15 year old child. Invitations to play a sexualized video game and articles on pornstars bombarded the account. Which was set to default settings and preferences.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, also noted a history of children gaining access to drugs through the app. She cited a a case where a teenage boy died after obtaining Percocet, unaware that it was laced with fentanyl. Stout affirmed Snapchat’s efforts to remove all drug dealers from the platform.
“We have stepped up and we have deployed proactive detection measures to get in ahead of what the drug dealers are doing,” Stout said. “They are constantly evading our tactics.”
Klobuchar then shifted focus to TikTok, citing the Wall Street Journal’s investigation of the app’s algorithm. Which reportedly fed young users content glorifying eating disorders, drugs, and violence. Michael Beckerman, vice president and head of public policy at TikTok, disagreed with the WSJ’s findings but noted that the app has made improvements for user control over the algorithm and age appropriate content.
TikTok Community Guidelines and Improved Algorithms
According to Beckerman, TikTok proactively removes over 97% of content which violates community guidelines, including drug content. Leslie Miller, YouTube’s vice president of government affairs and public policy. Also noted that harmful content, including the glorification of eating disorders, is against community guidelines. In addition, Miller asserted that 90% of violative content are caught by machine.
However officials also stressed that their algorithms can also push content relating to sensitive issues such as eating disorders in a positive, supportive light, where users go in order to find a safe and educational community.
“We prohibit content that promotes or glorifies such things as eating disorders, it has no place on the platform,” Miller said. “But we also realize that users come and share their stories about these experiences.”
TikTok and China
Lawmakers especially targeted TikTok with thorough questioning regarding its relationship with their Beijing-based parent company ByteDance. Lawmakers pressed Beckerman about whether the company releases consumer data to the Chinese government, to which he firmly denied.
A Citizen Lab report stated, “Our research shows there’s no overt data transmission to the Chinese government, and our testing TikTok did not contact any servers within China.”
The company also noted thatUS consumer data is stored in the US and access control is done through their US teams.
However, in a fervid exchange between Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Beckerman, the executive prevaricated on whether ByteDance has access to user data as per TikTok’s privacy laws. Which state that the platform may share collected information with a parent-subsidiary.
Although acknowledging that ByteDance is a part of their corporate group, Beckerman refused to give a straightforward answer, reminding that TikTok is not available in China.
Cruz said, “That does not give this committee any confidence that TikTok is doing anything other than participating in Chinese propaganda and espionage on American children.”
Hesitation for Legislation
Although the big tech executives repeatedly expressed agreement with lawmaker’s concerns over the safety of children on social media, they were more reluctant to show support for any legitimate legal solutions.
Sen. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, conveyed his frustration after representatives vaguely evaded attempts to gain support for his legislation to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to offer children the ability to control their data.
“This is just what drives us crazy,” Markey said. “‘We want to talk, we want to talk, we want to talk.’ This bill’s been out there for years, and you still don’t have a view on it.”
Bluthemal also criticized the officials’ ambiguous non-answers to whether they supported the EARN IT Act, which aims to redress Section 230 of the Communications Act to allow victims a means to take action against platforms that engage in online sexual abuse material.
All three representatives showed interest in maybe backing the act, but possible limitations to the platform’s individual moderation caused hesitation. Miller referred to Section 230 as “the backbone of the internet” and explained that while Youtube supported the intentions of the act, there were specific details that remain in need of overview.
Bluthemal, however, remained unconvinced of each platform’s willingness to take steps to remedy the issues within online child safety laws.
“‘We support the goals,’ but that’s meaningless unless you support the legislation,” Bluthemal said. “Good intentions, support for goals, endorsement of purposes is no substitute for actual endorsement.”