The Senate doesn’t think Big Tech is doing enough to protect the well-being of America’s youth, and they’re not going to let its leaders off the hook so easily.
That was the stern message imparted to executives from TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube at the conclusion of Tuesday’s hearing on protecting children online.
“With all due respect, the answers you’ve given don’t persuade me that we can rely on voluntary action by any of these companies in Big Tech,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection. “I think there are a lot of questions still to be answered and a lot of intentions to be disputed.”
So went the often tense three-hour hearing filled with obtuse, convoluted nonanswers, senatorial grandstanding, and a general agreement between Democrats and Republicans that Big Tech was on the wrong side of history.
Blumenthal adjourned the hearing by allowing executives from each of the three social media apps to explain how they differed from Facebook, the often-maligned tech giant that has recently become Congress’s poster child for prioritizing profit over safety.
“The problem is clear: Big Tech preys on children and teens to make more money,” Sen. Edward Markey, (D-Mass.), said at the hearing, summing up the event.
Meanwhile, representatives of the three companies worked to differentiate themselves from other platforms. “Snapchat is a very different platform. It was created by our founders to be an antidote to social media,” said Jennifer Stout, vice president of global public policy at Snapchat parent Snap Inc. “Snapchat was a decidedly different platform that was private, that was safe, where people could come and actually talk to the friends that they have in real life.”
Blumenthal interrupted Stout to compare her words to those of Facebook’s executives. “I understand your goals,” he said. “But I’m giving you the opportunity to tell us how you protect kids in a way that Facebook doesn’t.”
YouTube also tried to plead its case. “We do not prioritize profits over safety,” said Leslie Miller, vice president of government affairs and public policy at YouTube owner Google. “We invest heavily in making sure that our platforms are safe for our users. And we do not wait to act. We put systems and practices and protocols in place that over time we rely on when we need to adapt to the world around us.”
Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, who faced the toughest line of questioning over his company’s connections to China, said that TikTok had made many “difficult policy and difficult product choices that put the well-being of teens first.”
This was the first time TikTok had testified before Congress. During the testimony, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) claimed that Beckerman dodged questions more than any witness he’d seen in his nine years in Congress and asked repeatedly about “the control the Chinese Communist Party has over TikTok,” referring to its owners, ByteDance Ltd., a privately held Chinese startup funded in part by Sequoia Capital China.
“I just want folks watching to know that we’re not taking what you’ve told us at face value,” concluded Blumenthal. “The time for platitudes and bromides is over. We’ve seen the lobbyists at work, and it’s time to overcome them. I hope we look back on this hearing as a turning point.”
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