Lawmakers are demanding answers from YouTube after researchers found its recommendation algorithms suggesting videos of scantily clad children, heightening concerns about predators on the platform.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnSenator asks Facebook's Zuckerberg to testify at hearing on kids' safety TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat executives to testify at Senate hearing on kids' safety Buttigieg hits back after parental leave criticism: 'Really strange' MORE (R-Tenn.) sent a letter to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki on Thursday responding to the findings detailed in a recent New York Times story.
“The sexualization of children through YouTube’s recommendation engine represents the development of a dangerous new kind of illicit content meant to avoid law enforcement detection. Action is overdue,” the senators wrote.
Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyState watchdog to launch review of Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal Juan Williams: Trump's toxicity fuels fear of violence Pentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability MORE (R-Mo.), another outspoken tech critic, said earlier on Thursday that he would introduce legislation requiring sites like YouTube to leave videos of children out of its recommendation engine.
“Every parent in America should be appalled that YouTube is pushing videos of their children to pedophiles,” Hawley said in a statement. “It’s equally outrageous that YouTube refuses to take the most effective step necessary to fix the issue.”
The Times story detailed how seemingly innocent home movies depicting things like children playing in a pool were racking up hundreds of thousands of views on the platform, a deluge driven by YouTube’s algorithm telling viewers what they should watch next.
Researchers from Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society found that the algorithm would take viewers from one video of children to another.
The report comes a few months after multiple journalists had found that pedophiles were communicating with each other in the comments section of many videos, prompting YouTube to disable comments for some videos featuring children.
A YouTube spokesman did not immediately respond when asked for comment.
Jennifer O’Connor, the company’s head of trust and safety, told the Times that the company is working to make the platform safer, saying “when it comes to kids, we just want to take a much more conservative stance for what we recommend.”
“Protecting kids is at the top of our list,” she said.
Asked to respond to the senators' letter on Thursday, a YouTube spokeswoman pointed to a blog post the company had published after the Times story that outlines steps it has taken to protect children.
But Blumenthal and Blackburn want more information on how YouTube is responding to the misuse of its platform and details on who is leading the effort.
“As members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, we are dismayed at YouTube’s slow and inadequate response to repeated stories about child exploitation of its platform,” they wrote.
“YouTube must do all it can to prevent the exploitation of children, starting with the design of its algorithms and administration of its products.”
Updated at 6:10 p.m.