Jan 31, 2024
Today, January 31, 2024, Big Tech executives testified in front of members of Congress about their exploitative business practices.
Senator Graham opened with this: “Mr. Zuckerberg…you have blood on your hands.” In the audience, watching from behind the CEOs, sat family members who have lost a child to social media games gone horribly wrong, easily accessed pills that kill, and as victims of bullying and sextortion that drove them to suicide.
In a country that can feel so divided at times, I was proud today to see that senators who might be on opposite sides of the aisle on different issues came together to put Big Tech execs under fire, for a few hours, united in their common concerns for the welfare of children.
One senator pointed out early in the day, when one door blew off an airborne airplane a few weeks ago (and there were no injuries or deaths), Alaska Airlines grounded all planes of that model until they had addressed the problem. Why aren’t we doing the same when a child is harmed by the predatory and exploitative business practices of Big Tech?
Today, I want to note a few of the highlights from the testimony and to especially thank all the senators, some of whom I vehemently disagree with on so much else, for holding Big Tech’s feet to the fire, and to the brave families who witnessed the testimony, unafraid to tell their stories, show their child’s pictures, look directly at the leaders who failed to act to protect their children.
As I (and many of my colleagues) have been saying for years, the fundamental problem here is that until the business model changes, there are NO changes that Big Tech executives can make to their platforms that will better protect children.
Unfortunately, it’s too lucrative.
So I do believe that until regulations and oversight can be established to hold Big Tech accountable, we can’t expect to see meaningful changes (we will see performative ones, of course, but those are band-aids, not solutions).
As parents, we hear a lot about online predators and groomers who lurk in corners of apps and games where children spend time. Let me be clear: this is horrific and wrong and should not be happening.
But let me quote something I heard today: “The young ones are the good ones.”
No, that’s not something a pedophile said.
It’s something that was cited in today’s testimony from internal documents of a Big Tech company; it’s the belief of these executives that when children’s attention is captured at a young age, they are hooked early and often–for life. (Quite literally, as evidenced by the numerous parents in the audience today whose children were seriously harmed or even died because of social media’s predatory practices. See here for more about these brave parents.)
Big Tech knows that time spent on their platforms translates directly into profits. There is simply no incentive to change this– because it would mean losing money, and they are, as Mark Zuckerberg said at one point, “still a business.”
Senator Hirono from Hawaii observed the paradox of this: “Ensuring safety doesn’t save money; it costs money.”
I’ve watched many of these Big Tech congressional testimonies, and they feature a lot of the same denial, deflection, defensiveness, dismissal, and readiness to fault parents from the executives. It’s much easier to pin this on parents than take accountability for their practices.
But what is really galling is watching them blatantly lie. The disconnect between what they say and what is really happening is shocking.
Like when the CEO of Snap, Inc., said Snapchat "doesn't push sexually explicit content to minors."
Conveniently, as I was listening to this, I was walking with my tween daughter and her friend (who has Snapchat) to school. When I heard this, I stopped and said, "Hey! Girls-- you know Snapchat? They say they don't push sexually explicit content to kids...is that true?"
They both laughed-- "Of course not!"
Big Tech CEOs, kids are calling B.S. on your claims. You’re not fooling anyone– let alone tweens, who are the very gold mine of your product!
Or when Zuckerberg, Meta CEO, was asked about minors on Instagram, he replied, “Kids under 13 are not allowed on Instagram. And if we find them, we remove them.”
The audience actually laughed.
Of course, he says this– because federal law says children under 13 are not allowed on these platforms. But of course, we know this isn’t actually what’s happening in real life. It’s very easy to make an account and lie about your age. Children under 13 are on Instagram. No question.
Senator Hawley did not hold back on grilling Zuckerberg, and I was glad to see it. At one point, he asked if Zuckerberg would like to apologize to all the families who had come today, who had suffered the loss of a child due to the practices of Meta products.
Zuckerberg turned to the audience awkwardly and apologized. The words were there. But I have to wonder– how did all those parents sitting there feel? Did they find it sincere? Did it help ease their pain? My hunch is that words without action are meaningless. An apology might be appreciated, but it doesn’t reflect change. What are you going to do about that part, Mark? I hope the media doesn’t give Zuckerberg too much praise for this apology– let’s see the changes, too.
It’s remarkable to me: we don’t let kids drive until 16, vote until 18, or drink until 21. But so many of these Big Tech execs kept suggesting that their “safety” tools were easily implemented and used by young users, should they desire them. Are you serious? I mean, have you met a tween or teen? Their brains are far from fully developed– they lack the executive function to make smart decisions (which, by the way, is completely developmentally normal). So I find it deeply offensive that the onus to manage their own “safety” gets put back on them. Really? How’s that worked so far? Given the size of the audience in today’s hearings, not so well!
And, of course, Zuckerberg and the others said the quiet part out loud. When asked by a senator, “Do you want young people to use Meta products more or less?” Zuckerberg fumbled around a bit before admitting, “More, I guess.”
This should not surprise us. Zuckerberg et al. are business executives. They want to make money for their shareholders. But to juxtapose that with the obvious harm their products cause, it’s pretty breathtaking to hear it spoken out loud.
Shortly after this, Senator Ossoff followed up with, “Is your platform safe for kids?”
Zuckerberg answered, “I believe it is.”
Ossoff then listed all the known harms caused by Meta (including from Meta’s own leaked internal documents.)
Clearly, there is a lot of lying going on– or at least deception. But even that doesn’t really matter because whether or not these executives admit it, harm is occurring, and we should all be concerned about their impact on children.
As one congressperson asked, “Is our humanity greater than our technology?
Senator Blackburn ended the hearings perfectly: “Children aren’t your priority. Children are your product. Children are what you see as a way to make money.”
She’s absolutely right.
I do hope that today’s testimony spurs Congress to take broader action. Because we certainly won’t see those changes coming willingly from within these companies themselves. The money is just too good.