Social Media CEOs Testify at Contentious Child Safety Hearing

KHARKOV, UKRAINE - FEBRUARY 17, 2020: Wooden judge gavel lies on many paper logos of popular social networks and internet resources. Entertainment lawsuit concept

The Senate Judiciary Committee grilled prominent social media CEOs on Wednesday, pressing them about alleged platform safety issues for minors. 

At the Senate Judiciary Committee’s most recent child safety hearing, senators focused on whether tech leaders backed specific legislation. But what exactly are the complaints? 

Children’s advocates and lawmakers assert that social media companies are inadequately protecting young people from sexual predators, addictive features, suicide and eating disorders, unrealistic beauty standards, and bullying. 

The hearing commenced with recorded testimonies from youth and parents who reported exploitation on social media. Throughout the lengthy event, parents who lost children to suicide silently displayed pictures of their deceased offspring. Senators then questioned social media execs: X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel, Discord CEO Jason Citron, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.

“They’re responsible for many of the dangers our children face online,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. “Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk.”

Ad Ops and Rev Ops professionals are always looking for ways to make the internet safe for minors, but they also want to keep monetization in mind. How do you strike the balance? 

KOSA and the Critics Who Oppose

For years, the U.S. government has been trying to pass federal child safety laws, such as the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). This law would mandate online services such as social media platforms, video game sites, and messaging apps to implement “reasonable measures” against various harms, including online bullying, harassment, sexual exploitation, anorexia, self-harm, and predatory marketing targeting of minors.

Additionally, these services must activate the highest privacy and safety settings by default for users under 18. It allows young people to control or opt out of features like personalized news feeds, smartphone notifications, and auto-playing videos that could lead to compulsive app usage. 

On the other hand, there are major criticisms of this bill. For some, KOSA’s flaws lie in its broad empowerment of government entities to sue online platforms for failing to mitigate content deemed harmful to minors. This approach and intrusive age verification requirements pose potential threats to privacy and freedom of speech. 

Although legislators have tried to revise similar bills, concerns persist over government overreach and constitutional violations. Despite opposition, the fight against such legislation continues, recognizing the necessity to defend online rights against censorship and surveillance.

From Apologies to KOSA Support, Big Tech Weighs In 

Social media execs were in the hot seat at the senate hearing as they faced their alleged culpability in ensuring children’s safety online. After apologies and intense inquiries, these are the major takeaways from the hearing

Mark Zuckerberg’s Apology: Under pressure from Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, Zuckerberg rose from his chair, turned to face families of victims in the audience who had endured abuse on Meta’s apps, and apologized. He expressed regret for their suffering and vowed that his company was striving to prevent such experiences for others but did not directly acknowledge Meta’s involvement.

Snap and X CEOs Endorse KOSA: Evan Spiegel of Snap and Linda Yaccarino of X have endorsed KOSA. However, Mark Zuckerberg, Shou Zi  Chew, and Discord’s CEO, Jason Citron, have not committed their support, citing concerns about overly broad restrictions that could potentially clash with free speech principles.

The Balance of Safety, Compliance and Monetization

Federal legislators and outspoken critics struggle to balance child safety, privacy compliance, and monetization. While I’m sure both sides of the aisle want to protect minors, they are working on the minute details. 

As publishers work to reach younger audiences, they must be mindful of the potential risks associated with it. Unfortunately, as Dennis Colón, former SuperAwesome VP of Global Operations, warned us, many brands block revenue from younger audiences because they believe monetizing them without compliance issues is impossible. 

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s impossible to reach younger audiences compliantly,” said Colón. “In previous roles, I’ve worked to block monetization efforts from crossing into kids’ content. But this approach is bad for both content owners and brands. It’s fundamentally why the kid tech sector was started: to enable safe engagement with the under-16 audience in a way that works for the entire ecosystem.”