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'You have blood on your hands,' senator tells Mark Zuckerberg for failing kids online

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the dangers of child sexual exploitation on social media, including Meta's Facebook and Instagram.
Alex Wong
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Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the dangers of child sexual exploitation on social media, including Meta's Facebook and Instagram.

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

The executives include Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, X's Linda Yaccarino and TikTok's Shou Zi Chew, among others.

The social media apps have "given predators powerful new tools to exploit children," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at the kickoff of the Senate Judiciary 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 children's safety online. Lawmakers have spoken out, have 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 on your hands," Sen. 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 and child advocates who were holding photos of their loved ones, 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.

Zuckerberg apologies to families

During the hearing Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked Zuckerberg if he would like to apologize to the "victims who've been harmed by your product." He told family members in the audience to hold up their pictures.

Zuckerberg stood and faced the gallery.

"I'm sorry for everything you have all been through," he 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 wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer."

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 age 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.

The emails show top executives at Meta discussing budget and head count, as well as the fact that if they didn't address the issue they'd face increased regulatory risk and external criticism.

"This work & narrative has of course become a more critical focal point for policymakers, regulators et al in recent weeks — this is not likely to diminish going forward," Nick Clegg, Meta's president of global affairs wrote in a 2021 email to Zuckerberg.

The internal emails were produced in response to a letter that Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., sent to Meta in November.

Five federal bills introduced

Of the other executives to testify, TikTok's Chew has also appeared before Congresslast year, but this is the first time lawmakers have grilled X's Yaccarino and the two other CEOs: Snap's Evan Spiegel and Discord's Jason Citron. Chew volunteered to speak on Wednesday, but Yaccarino, Spiegel and Citron agreed only after being subpoenaed.

Before the hearing, Snap had come out as the sole social media company to throw its support behind the Kids Online Safety Act, which is one of the bills that lawmakers are hoping to bring to the Senate floor this year. But as the hearing got underway, X said it too supports the legislation. If passed, the bill would hold tech companies accountable for feeding teens toxic content.

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

Throughout the hearing, several of the senators tried to get the tech CEOs to agree to back legislation. All of the executives said more had to be done and they agree with regulation, but besides Spiegel and Yaccarino, none said they'd fully back one of the bills.

At one point Senator Chris Coons, D-Del., tried to get the CEOs to support legislation he and several other senators introduced, the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act.

"Is there any one of you willing to say now that you support this bill?" Coons asked the CEOs.

After the question didn't elicit a response, he followed up with: "Mr. Chairman, let the record reflect a yawning silence from the leaders of the social media platforms."

Child safety groups and parents joined lawmakers for several press conferences on Wednesday. They echoed the senators' demands that more has to be done to protect kids online.

"Parents used to worry about where their kids were at 10 p.m.," 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."

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Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.