Mark Zuckerberg, Linda Yaccarino among tech CEOs grilled for failing to protect kids

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is back testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s testified several times before, including in 2018 (pictured here).

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is back testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’s testified several times before, including in 2018 (pictured here).

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Top tech CEOs are being grilled in Washington by lawmakers, who say the companies have failed to protect children from being subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation on their websites.

Executives include Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, X’s Linda Yaccarino and TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew.

The social media apps have “given predators powerful new tools to exploit children,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at the kick off of the Judiciary Senate Committee hearing on Wednesday. He noted that the powerful apps “have changed the way we live, work and play.”

The hearing is one of several over the past year as pressure builds for federal regulators to do more to hold tech companies accountable for kid safety online. Lawmakers have spoken out, written letters to the CEOs and are pushing five separate bills that cover social media and child safety.

States have also targeted the social media companies. Last year, 13 states passed laws to protect kids on social media and more states are expected to do the same.

“You have blood in your hands,” Lindsey Graham tells Zuckerberg

Of the companies testifying on Wednesday, Meta has especially come under fire for allegedly creating a toxic environment for children. In October, a group of more than 40 states sued the company for allegedly designing Facebook and Instagram to be addictive.

Separately, New Mexico’s Attorney General filed another suit against Meta alleging it fails to remove child sexual abuse material from its platforms and also makes it easy for adults to solicit minors.

That lawsuit came after a Facebook whistleblower, Arturo Bejar, testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in November. Based on data he collected while working at Facebook, he said he found that 24% of teens had received unwanted sexual advances. And when harmful posts are reported, he said, only 2% are taken down.

During Wednesday’s hearing Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., laid into Zuckerberg.

“Mr. Zuckerberg,” Graham began, “you have blood on your hands. You have a product that’s killing people.”

The packed audience, which included parents, survivors and child advocates, erupted in applause.

Zuckerberg has testified several times before members of the Senate and he voluntarily agreed to speak again on Wednesday. In his opening statement, he said, “Keeping young people safe online has been a challenge since the internet began.”

“No matter how much we invest or how effective our tools are, there’s always more to learn and more improvements to make,” Zuckerberg added.

Internal emails show Zuckerberg declined to hire staff to protect children online

In the lead-up to Wednesday’s hearing, Meta rolled out new tools geared toward protecting kids online. Those include barring children under the age of 18 from seeing posts about suicide, self-harm and eating disorders. The company says it has around 40,000 people working on safety and security issues.

But just hours before the hearing began, lawmakers released 90 pages of internal emails that showed Meta has refused to fully commit to improving child safety on its platforms. At one point in 2021, the emails show Zuckerberg declined a proposal to hire 45 new staff members dedicated to children’s well-being.

Of the other executives to testify, Zi Chew spoke before Congress members last year, but this is the first time lawmakers grilled Yaccarino and the two other CEOs: Snap’s Evan Spiegel and Discord’s Jason Citron. Zi Chew volunteered to speak on Wednesday, but Yaccarino, Spiegel and Citron only agreed after being subpoenaed.

Snap has come out as the sole social media company to throw its support behind the Kids Online Safety Act, which is legislation that would hold tech companies accountable for feeding teens toxic content. Senators are hoping to bring the bill to the floor this year.

“Many of the largest and most successful internet companies today were born here in the United States of America and we much lead not only in technical innovation but also in smart regulation,” Snap’s Spiegel said in his opening remarks on Wednesday.

Child safety advocates say, however, all the tech companies still have long way to go to protect kids.

“Parents used to worry about where their kids were at 10pm,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO and founder of the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. “These days, they may be physically present but we don’t know who they’re spending time with online, and what they’re being exposed to every day.”