Senators from both parties blasted Big Tech on Tuesday and called for the passage of federal legislation to regulate tech platforms in the midst of a mental health crisis among young Americans.
Opening a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen Dick Durbin, the panel’s chair, accused tech companies including Facebook and Snapchat of “doing everything they can to keep our kids eyes glued to the screens.”
Tuesday’s hearing, which featured testimony from civil society groups and mental health advocates, did not involve witnesses from the tech industry. But Durbin hinted at a possible future hearing involving Big Tech representatives, saying “don’t worry, they’ll have their chance” as the committee invites them to weigh in on legislative proposals.
The hearing comes amid renewed attention on the impact social networks are having on their youngest users. In his State of the Union address last week, President Joe Biden called for Congress to pass legislation to protect kids’ privacy and safety online. Also this month, a New Jersey community was roiled when a 14-year-old student took her own life after a TikTok video showed she was attacked by several other teenagers.
On Tuesday, senators promoted several new and existing pieces of legislation in the works to address different potential online harms.
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Durbin announced he is circulating a discussion draft of a bill he has worked on “for months” that targets the spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online, known as the Stop CSAM Act.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, the panel’s top Republican, announced he is working with Sen. Elizabeth Warren on a bill that would create a “digital regulatory commission” that would be empowered to shut down social media sites if they fail to adopt “best business practices” to limit CSAM.
And Sen. Richard Blumenthal called for passing the Kids’ Online Safety Act and the EARN IT Act, two controversial bills that were heavily debated in the last Congress that would respectively create new regulations for social media and restrict their ability to invoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the industry’s key liability shield.
Congress’ failure to pass those bills, Blumenthal said, is “inexcusable” amid what he described as tech companies “pillaging the public interest with its armies of lobbyists and lawyers despite promises of collaboration.”
“I am haunted by what one parent told me,” Blumenthal added. “She asked, ‘How many more children have to die before we make them a priority?’”
At the hearing, Kristin Bride, whose teenage son Carson died by suicide in 2020 after receiving a barrage of anonymous cyberbullying messages, said she had sued Snap for facilitating the harassment. But the class-action suit was dismissed after the company invoked Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, she said.
“Nothing is more important to us than the wellbeing of our community,” a spokesperson said in a statement provided to CNN, noting the company relies on human moderators to limit the spread of harmful content and works with mental health organizations to provide tools and resources for users. “We are constantly evaluating how we continue to make our platform safer, including through new education, features and protections,” the spokesperson said.
Bride described the evening before Carson’s death as a “wonderful night” in which he had just begun a summer job making pizzas.
“The next morning, I woke to the complete shock and horror that Carson had hung himself in our garage while we slept,” Bride said. A subsequent investigation found dozens of harassing and sexually explicit messages on his cell phone.
“It should not take grieving parents filing a lawsuit to hold this industry accountable for their dangerous and addictive product designs,” Bride said. “We need lawmakers to step up, put politics aside and finally protect all children online.”