Last month’s made-for-TV Senate grilling of several of America’s top tech moguls drove home the serious issue of harm that social media platforms can do to children. It also demonstrated yet again — with performative and at times outright clownish grandstanding by senators — why a political solution has been so elusive.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing Congress can do.
What came through all the sound and fury of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is that these companies’ biggest fear is being exposed to lawsuits holding them accountable for their negligence regarding content. They currently enjoy almost complete legal protection from such suits, courtesy of Congress.
That can and should change. Washington is predictably polarized on how it should change, with the left and the right targeting completely different issues.
But the hearing showed how much bipartisan agreement there is on the particular urgency of combating online child sexual exploitation, revenge porn, social media harassment and other scourges that have made childhood a more treacherous landscape than it was before the digital age.
The top-line moment for most of the country was the gratuitous takedown of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg by Sen. Josh Hawley. The Missouri Republican pressed Zuckerberg to apologize to the audience of families of young online exploitation and harassment victims.
“Would you like to do so now?” asked Hawley, bringing more heat than light to the conversation as usual. “They’re here, you’re on national television. Would you like now to apologize to the victims?”
Zuckerberg did, sort of, standing and turning toward the audience and saying he was “sorry for anything you have gone through.” One audience member, the father of a teenage suicide victim, later told CNN the viral moment was meaningless and “awkward.”
It should be noted that Hawley’s apparent belief in the cleansing power of apology hasn’t prompted him, to this day, to acknowledge his own culpability in stoking the populist rage that helped fuel the Jan. 6, 2021, mob assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., displayed a similar lack of self-awareness by telling Zuckerberg: “You have blood on your hands. … You have a product that’s killing people.” This from a prominent leader of a political party that continues to block any attempt to address the gun carnage that kills tens of thousands of Americans annually.
Then there was Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., channeling Joseph McCarthy with his ridiculous and arguably racist questioning of whether TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has “ever been a member of the Chinese communist party” — forcing Chew to patiently, repeatedly explain that he is Singaporean, not Chinese, and has never been a communist.
If the hearing displayed the hypocrisy and dysfunction of today’s political right, though, it also highlighted the bipartisan overlap on the issue of online danger to kids.
Unlike much of the overblown hysteria about, for example, the supposed censorship of conservative opinion on the internet, child sexual exploitation and related threats are real. And both political parties are increasingly insisting that the tech platforms have an obligation to deal with them.
Transforming that broad agreement into action is difficult because of Section 230 of the Communications Act. The 1990s-era federal provision gives online platforms legal protection from being sued over content that users post to their sites.
Traditional media don’t have such protection; newspapers, for example, can be successfully sued for libel for publishing letters to the editor that are false and defamatory.
But Congress reserved special protection against such litigation for online media in the early days of the internet in recognition of the technical difficulties companies would have in policing the mass amounts of data that users put on their sites. The thinking — which is still valid today, to a point — is that old-media standards of content control would be effectively impossible for online sites to adhere to, and would stymie the growth of the internet.
That principle is still reason enough not to repeal Section 230 completely, as some critics have suggested doing. Social media is so hardwired into society today that opening internet content to unfettered litigation would invite political, economic and cultural paralysis. And that’s before even getting into the politically fraught question of what, exactly, should constitute legally actionable content.
But a more targeted loosening of Section 230, removing the companies’ lawsuit protection regarding online exploitation and other offenses related specifically to children, is an idea worth exploring. Graham has sponsored such legislation, as have Democrats.
To the argument that fully filtering out even just dangers to kids would be an impossibly huge order for the platforms, we would counter by noting the amazing things social media companies can do today.
Advanced algorithms, artificial intelligence and other mind-blowing developments indicate there’s virtually no technological goal these tech titans can’t achieve when properly motivated. And now, as before there even was an internet, nothing motivates entrepreneurs like a threat to their bottom line.
— The St. Louis Post-Dispatch