WASHINGTON — U.S. senators on Tuesday voiced frustration and outrage that Congress has been unable to pass legislation bolstering protection for children online, including adding guardrails to social media platforms.
During a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats and Republicans pledged to keep working together to pass several bipartisan bills that didn’t make it to President Joe Biden’s desk during the last session.
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But they also sparred about the best way to protect children online from sexual exploitation, mental health challenges, subpar privacy protections and companies that target children to sell their data to advertisers.
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“It’s just another reminder of how frustrating and maddening and frankly infuriating it is that Congress has been unable to deal with this in a more timely and a more targeted manner,” said Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn. “But I’m also reminded of the fact that technology does not move at the speed of legislation.”
Oregon parent testifies
Kristin Bride, a social media reform advocate from Portland, Oregon, told the panel how her 16-year-old son, Carson, committed suicide after being harassed online by people who were able to remain anonymous by using certain apps.
Bride told senators she found out after her son committed suicide that he received nearly 100 negative, harassing, or sexually explicit messages leading up to his death.
She then filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed because Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 law, insulates companies from liability for the content third parties post on their websites.
“It should not take grieving parents filing lawsuits to hold this industry accountable for their dangerous and addictive product designs,” Bride said. “Federal legislation like the Kids Online Safety Act, which requires social media companies to have a duty of care when designing their products for America’s children, is long overdue.”
Cyber tip line
Michelle DeLaune, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, told the committee the organization’s cyber tip line received more than 3.2 million reports of child abuse within the United States during the last year.
But the quality of the information in the reports “is often lacking and there are significant disparities in how companies report,” she said.
“For instance, companies have no duty to report child sex trafficking or online enticement of children,” DeLaune said. “Some companies choose not to report sufficient information for those cases to be properly assessed and investigated. And some companies choose not to submit actual images or the videos actually being reported, or any information that could be used to identify a suspect or a victim.”
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, she said, is “just seeing the tip of the iceberg” since “very few companies choose to engage in voluntary measures to detect known child sexual abuse materials and those who do proactively look for that make the most reports.”
But Congress, DeLaune said, has the opportunity to make changes, including providing survivors of child sexual abuse with more power than they have now.
“Currently, child victims have no recourse if a tech company takes no action to stop, remove and report sexually explicit imagery in which they are depicted,” DeLaune said.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham summed up the lack of options parents and survivors have against technology and social media companies, saying “You can’t sue them, there’s no agency with the power to change their behavior and there’s no laws on the books that would stop this abusive behavior.”
Bride told the committee that increasing safeguards is the best option, noting that at one point automobiles were much more dangerous until the government began requiring seatbelts and airbags.
John Pizzuro, former commander of New Jersey Internet Crimes Against Children and CEO of a firm called Raven that focuses on addressing child exploitation, described the online environment for children as “horrifying.”
Many police departments, Pizzuro said, are swamped with reports of online exploitation of children, making it extremely challenging to proactively investigate.
“Children are made vulnerable on these platforms as a result of poor moderation, the absence of age or identity verification, inadequate or missing safety mechanisms and the sheer determination of offenders,” Pizzuro said.
Emma Lembke, founder of the Log Off Movement, who is from Alabama but attends college in Missouri, urged the committee to take steps to bolster protections for teens on social media platforms.
“The genie is out of the bottle and we will never go back to a time where social media does not exist, nor should we,” Lembke said. “But make no mistake, unregulated social media is a weapon of mass destruction that continues to jeopardize the safety, privacy and wellbeing of all American youth.”
Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, pledged to at least hold a markup this Congress, a process that would bring legislation forward and allow the panel’s members to debate and vote on amendments.
“Like we do in the real world, we need to protect our kids in the virtual world,” Durbin said. “This is not a partisan issue, this is an issue that keeps parents and children up at night. It deserves the attention of this committee and this Congress. And it deserves action.”
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