It’s been 20 years since Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg released a program called Thefacebook to his college community, launching a company that would capture over 3 billion users, flirt with a trillion-dollar valuation, and make so much money that it’s now kicking back a dividend to shareholders. And what better way to celebrate than raising your hand in a congressional hearing like a mafia boss or tobacco executive? “You have blood on your hands,” Lindsey Graham, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee told Zuckerberg this week. “You have a product that is killing people.” Cheers erupted from the gallery behind him, containing families who believe his creation helped kill their children.
The hearing, dubbed Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis, was a reminder to Zuckerberg that after 20 years his company is still, despite his excitement about creating metaverses and artificial general intelligence, at its heart a social network. There is an urgent need to address how his platform and others affect child safety and well-being, something Congress has fulminated about for years. The Judiciary Committee has drawn up several bills to force the companies to do better, including ones that demand better content policing and make it easier to enact civil and criminal penalties for social media companies. In addition to Zuckerberg, this week’s hearing called Discord’s Jason Citron, X’s Linda Yaccarino, Snap’s Evan Spiegel, and TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew, in theory to solicit testimony that could advance those bills. But the hearing was less about listening to the executives than flogging them for their sins. As Graham put it, “If we’re waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we’re going to die waiting.”
Indeed, legislators should stop wasting time with these evasive moguls and should simply pass the laws that they believe will save the lives of young people. Instead, they repeatedly moaned during the hearing that they cannot do their jobs because “armies of lawyers and lobbyists” are standing in the way. Funny, I don’t remember lobbyists being a required part of the process in my junior high school textbook How a Law Is Passed. Still, senator after senator complained about congressional colleagues who were passively blocking the bills, implying that they valued tech company support more than preventing teenagers from killing themselves. At one point Louisiana senator John Kennedy called on majority leader Charles Schumer ”to go to Amazon, buy a spine online, and bring this bill to the Senate floor.” Maybe the next hearing should have Chuck himself under the bright lights. I can imagine it now: Senator Schumer, is it true that one of your daughters works as an Amazon lobbyist and another has spent years working for Meta? Yes or no!
OK, let’s stipulate that, as the senators see it, the US congress doesn’t have the stones to pass social media child-safety legislation unless the companies call off their dogs. That would mean that the Senate has to work with the companies—or their armies of lobbyists—to find compromises. But the committee expended little effort on finding common ground with the companies. More than one senator thought it would be constructive to force each CEO to say whether they supported this bill or that as written. Almost universally, the CEOs attempted to say that there were things in the bill they agreed with but others they objected to and needed to work with lawmakers on. They could hardly get out a sentence before they were cut off, as Graham did in his interrogation of Discord’s Citron. “That’s a no,” he said, not giving him a chance to say what was needed to make it a yes. The Dirksen Office Building saw a lot of that kind of grandstanding this week.
One key tension between Congress and the tech industry is the status of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which holds users responsible for content on platforms, not the companies running those platforms. Nearly two hours into the hearing, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse finally asked the execs what modifications to Section 230 would be acceptable to them. But he apparently didn’t want that discussion to take time away from the main event—posturing, chest-thumping, and ritual humiliation—and asked them to send their thoughts in writing after the hearing. I would have preferred a genuine discussion, right then. Is it possible to reform Section 230 to make social media companies accountable for real negligence or misdeeds, without putting them out of business and killing off swathes of the internet? What are the free-speech implications? How does this relate to some state laws—now under consideration by the Supreme Court—that force platforms to display certain content even if they feel it violates their standards? Believe it or not, fruitful dialog is possible in a congressional hearing. We had one recently about AI where witnesses and senators actually dug into the issues, with no accusations that the witnesses were killing people. Even though AI might kill us all!
One potential solution to the social media problem mentioned by multiple senators was to make it possible to sue platforms that moderate content poorly. That would be all of them, according to Whitehouse, who told the CEOs, “Your platforms really suck at policing themselves.” (Isn’t that sentence itself toxic content?) Families who have filed such suits have had difficulty making progress because Section 230 seems to grant platforms immunity. It does seem fair to modify the rule so that if a company knowingly, or because of conspicuous negligence, refuses to take down harmful posts, it should be responsible for the consequences of its own actions. But that might unleash a tsunami of lawsuits based on frivolous claims as well as serious ones. For Republican lawmakers in particular, this is an interesting approach, since their party’s votes pushed through a 1995 law that did the opposite for an industry whose products lead to many more deaths than social media. The Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act banned victims of gun violence from suing munitions manufacturers. I would like to hear legislators grapple with that paradox, but I don’t think I’d get an answer without subpoena power.