Senators gear up for bipartisan grilling of Facebook execs

Senators gear up for bipartisan grilling of Facebook execs
© Greg Nash

Senators are set to grill Facebook over the platform’s impact on children with two hearings scheduled to kick off on Thursday.

Concerns over social media’s impact on kids’ health and privacy have been a rare unifying issue in Washington, though the collective fury has failed to produce swift legislative action on proposals to regulate platforms.

Questions about kids’ safety online have been raised in previous congressional hearings with Big Tech executives, but the upcoming Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee hearings will put a spotlight on youth safety. The panel will question Facebook’s global head of safety, Antigone Davis, at a Thursday hearing and will later hear from a Facebook whistleblower on Tuesday.

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“This whistleblower’s testimony will be critical to understanding what Facebook knew about its platforms’ toxic effects on young users, when they knew it, and what they did about it,” subcommittee Chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement. “I look forward to a discussion of the wide range of stunning allegations that have recently been brought to light about the concerning experiences young people are having on these apps.”

Congressional rage at Facebook has ramped up in recent days after a series of Wall Street Journal articles detailed internal company research on Instagram’s negative impact on teen mental health, fueled further by another article on Tuesday on Facebook’s push to court young users.

The earlier reporting unleashed waves of bipartisan backlash, leading Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, to pause its controversial plan to launch an Instagram platform for kids. The popular photo-sharing app bans users under 13, although critics and the company acknowledge users often lie about their age to get on as children.

Despite Instagram’s pause on the plan, the concerns are likely to be raised at the upcoming hearings. After the pause was announced, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the company has not gone far enough.

“Facebook’s decision to pause ‘Instagram Kids’ is a step in the right direction to ensuring a safe environment, but there is still much work to be done. Big Tech’s pattern of choosing profit over the wellbeing of young users is extremely concerning, and we must hold them accountable,” Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnConservatives target Biden pick for New York district court Senators seek to curb counterfeit toys and goods sold online China draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai MORE (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the consumer protection subcommittee, said in a statement.

Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersDemocrats to target Section 230 in Haugen hearing Washington redistricting panel reaches late agreement on new lines McMorris Rodgers worried broadband funding will miss mark without new maps MORE (Wash.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, also called the pause a “step in the right direction” but pushed for bigger changes.

“Our children’s mental health is worth fighting for and we will continue that fight,” Rodgers tweeted.

Since the last time senators had the chance to question a Facebook executive — during last week’s antitrust hearing on data when kids’ safety stole the spotlight — a new trove of documents about Facebook’s efforts on youth were reported by the Journal.

Facebook reportedly formed a team to study preteens and set goals to create more products targeting the young users. Company documents reportedly called “tweens,” defined as ages 10 to 12, “a valuable but untapped audience.”

“The reality is that kids are already online, and we believe that developing age-appropriate experiences designed specifically for them is far better for parents than where we are today,” the platform’s head, Adam Mosseri, wrote in a blog post defending Instagram’s plans.

The issue of transparency will likely be raised during Thursday’s hearing. Blumenthal and Blackburn last month sent a letter to Facebook asking to release any research the company has conducted on youth mental health. The company responded, but failed to provide the research, according to the senators.

“Far from being transparent about this danger ... Facebook in fact has been blatantly deceptive and disingenuous about it,” Blumenthal said last week.

There’s some hope among advocates that Thursday’s hearing will lead to congressional action — at least in comparison to other tech issues on which lawmakers remain more deeply divided.

“If there's one thing that Republicans and Democrats can get behind, it should be protecting children,” Ariel Fox Johnson, senior counsel for Common Sense Media, told The Hill on Wednesday.

“I'm much more hopeful about tomorrow's hearing than I was about today's hearing, that this could lead to more immediate action from Congress. We certainly see bipartisan concern,” Johnson said after the Senate Commerce Committee held its first sweeping hearing on consumer privacy.

But despite the bipartisan consensus on kids’ safety, there has been little congressional success in getting regulatory proposals across the finish line.

For example, no Republicans have voiced support for the KIDS Act, a proposal that calls for platforms to ban “auto-play” features and targets manipulative influencer marketing for youth.

The bill’s Democratic sponsors, Blumenthal and Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenators seek to curb counterfeit toys and goods sold online Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Pledged money not going to Indigenous causes MORE (Mass.) in the Senate and Reps. Lori TrahanLori A. TrahanHillicon Valley — Feds issue Thanksgiving cybersecurity warning Democrats press Facebook over 'inconsistency' on ad targeting for teens Four big takeaways from a tough hearing for Facebook MORE (Mass.) and Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorHillicon Valley — Feds issue Thanksgiving cybersecurity warning Democrats press Facebook over 'inconsistency' on ad targeting for teens House climate panel chair: 'We just don't have any more time to waste' MORE (Fla.) in the House, said they will be reintroducing the bill this session.

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“Time and time again, Facebook has demonstrated the failures of self-regulation, and we know that Congress must step in. That’s why we will be re-introducing the Kids Internet Design and Safety (KIDS) Act, which will give young internet users the protections they need to navigate today’s online ecosystem without sacrificing their wellbeing. We urge our colleagues to join us in this effort and pass this critical legislation,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

One proposal focused on kids’ online privacy that does have bipartisan support was introduced in June by Markey and Sen. Bill CassidyBill CassidySunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist Legislators look to expand health care access through telehealth, biosimilars Infrastructure deal is proof that Congress can still do good, bipartisan work MORE (R-La.). The proposal would beef up the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Castor introduced a similar privacy proposal in the House in July.

And a proposal with bipartisan support in both chambers, known as the CAMRA Act, would fund independent research through the National Institutes of Health to look at how technology and media affect kids. The bill was reintroduced earlier this year but has not reached the floor in either chamber for a vote.

Johnson, in arguing for quick congressional action, said the lack of protections for kids today will affect them in adulthood.

“These children are going to be teenagers and adults soon. They need protection now and their parents need to have some peace of mind now, not in five years,” she said.