WASHINGTON (AP) – Senators put executives at YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat on the defensive on Tuesday, asking them what they are doing to keep young users safe on their platforms.
Citing the damage vulnerable young people can take from the sites – ranging from eating disorders to exposure to sexually explicit content and material promoting addictive drugs – lawmakers have also called for support from leaders for legislation strengthening the protection of children on social networks. But they received little firm commitment.
“The problem is clear: Big tech is preying on children and teens to make more money,” Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., Said at a hearing by the Senate Trade Subcommittee on consumer protection.
The subcommittee recently heard from a former Facebook data scientist, who presented internal company research showing that the company’s Instagram photo-sharing service appears to be seriously harming some teens. The subcommittee is broadening its scope to examine other tech platforms, with millions or billions of users, also vying for the attention and loyalty of young people.
“We are hearing the same stories of harm” caused by YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Chair of the panel.
“This is a big tobacco moment for Big Tech… It’s a judgmental moment,” he said. “There will be a responsibility. This time it’s different.
To this end, Markey asked the three leaders – Michael Beckerman, vice president of TikTok and head of public policy for the Americas; Leslie Miller, vice president of government affairs and public policy at YouTube owner Google; and Jennifer Stout, vice president of global public policy for Snapchat, parent company Snap Inc. – if they supported its bipartisan legislation that would give new privacy rights to children and ban targeted advertising and video autoplaying for kids.
In a lengthy exchange as Markey tried to secure a supportive commitment, executives avoided providing direct endorsement, insisting that their platforms already comply with the proposed restrictions. They said they were seeking a dialogue with lawmakers as the legislation was developed.
It wasn’t good enough for Markey and Blumenthal, who saw a classic Washington lobby game in a time of crisis for social media and the tech industry. “This is the speech that we have seen over and over and over and over again,” Blumenthal told them. Applauding legislative goals in general only “makes sense” if backed by specific support, he said.
“Sex and drugs are violations of our community standards; they don’t belong on TikTok, ”Beckerman said. TikTok has implemented tools, such as screen time management, to help kids and parents moderate how much time kids spend on the app and what they see, he said. .
The company says it is focusing on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. The video platform, which is very popular with teenagers and young children, is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. In just five years since its launch, it has gained around 1 billion monthly users.
Earlier this year, after federal regulators ordered TikTok to disclose how its practices affect children and teens, the platform tightened its privacy practices for users under the age of 18.
Pressed by Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., About a 19-year-old who allegedly died from counterfeit painkillers he purchased through Snapchat, Stout said: “We are absolutely committed to removing all Snapchat drug dealers. ” She said the platform has deployed detection measures against resellers, but acknowledged that they are often evaded.
Stout argued that Snapchat’s platform differs from others by relying on humans, not artificial intelligence, to moderate content.
Snapchat allows people to send photos, videos and messages destined to disappear quickly, an incentive for its young users seeking to avoid spying on parents and teachers. Hence its faceless (and wordless) white logo “Ghostface Chillah”.
At just 10 years old, Snapchat says 90% of 13-24 year olds in the United States use the service. It reported 306 million daily users in the July-September quarter.
Miller said YouTube has made an effort to provide children and families with parental protections and controls such as time limits, to limit viewing to age-appropriate content. The YouTube Kids offshoot, available in around 70 countries, has around 35 million weekly users.
“We don’t prioritize profits over security. We are not waiting to act, ”she said.
The three platforms are woven into the fabric of young people’s lives, often influencing their dress, dance moves and diet, leading to obsession. Peer pressure to access applications is strong. Social media can provide entertainment and education, but the platforms have been misused to harm children and promote bullying, vandalism in schools, eating disorders and manipulative marketing, according to legislators.
The panel wants to learn how algorithms and product designs can amplify harm to children, foster addiction and invade privacy. And Blumenthal mostly asked executives if independent research had been done on the impact on young people of the platforms. He said lawmakers were keen to receive information from companies about the research soon.
TikTok, during his first testimony to Congress, was particularly criticized during the hearing, especially from conservative Republican lawmakers who pointed to his Chinese ownership. The company says it stores all TikTok US data in the United States, with a backup facility in Singapore.
“TikTok actually collects less data than a lot of our peers,” Beckerman said.
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Beckerman he dodges questions more than any other witness he has ever seen in Congress.
O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island.
Follow Marcy Gordon on https://twitter.com/mgordonap