Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — Facebook faces critics on kids' safety

Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — Facebook faces critics on kids' safety
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Today is Thursday. Welcome to Hillicon Valley, detailing all you need to know about tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Senators pressed a Facebook executive Thursday over the company’s impact on kids’ safety, kicking off a series of hearings set to continue next week when senators will hear from a company whistleblower. Questions were largely focused on concerns about teen mental health, and posts promoting self injury or eating disorders, but one interaction about the definition of “finsta” garnered the most viral attention

Meanwhile, an aerospace company founded by Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosDorsey's exit shakes up Twitter future The dangers of anarchy in space Health risks of space tourism: Is it responsible to send humans to Mars? MORE is coming under fire due to claims of sexism and harassment, while the House passed a bill to secure K-12 institutions against cyberattacks in the midst of a busy legislative week. 


Follow The Hill’s cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech team, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@millsrodrigo) and Rebecca Klar (@rebeccaklar_), for more coverage.

Let’s jump in.

For the kids

Facebook was in the hot seat Thursday at a Senate hearing about children's safety online, with the company’s head of global safety Antigone Davis appearing virtually as the sole witness. 

The Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee hearing followed a series of reports from The Wall Street Journal citing internal Facebook research, in part about Instagram’s impact on teen mental health and the company's efforts to court young users. 

The backlash: Senators across the aisle were mostly unified in their anger at Facebook — raising questions about content on Instagram that appear to promote self injury and eating disorders. 

Subcommittee Chair Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Facebook is using “big tobacco’s playbook.” 

“It has hidden its own research on addiction, and the toxic effects of its products. It has attempted to deceive the public and us in Congress about what it knows and it has weaponized childhood vulnerabilities against children themselves,” Blumenthal said. 

“As the chairman said, you've lost the trust and we do not trust you with influencing our children,” said Ranking Member Sen. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnChina draws scrutiny over case of tennis star Peng Shuai Sunday shows preview: Boosters open to all US adults; House Dems pass spending plan on to Senate Photos of the Week: President Biden, Kenosha protests and a pardon for Peanut Butter MORE (R-Tenn.). 

Facebook’s plans to create an Instagram for kids under 13 was a hot topic at the hearing, despite the company announcing earlier this week it would pause the plan. 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharKlobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden renominates Powell as Fed chair MORE (D-Minn.) pressed Davis on who would make the ultimate decision on whether to proceed with the plan.  Davis responded that it would be part of a collaborative team decision. 

As with many of her questions, Klobuchar said she would follow up in writing with the company to receive more direct answers. 

Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeySenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Pledged money not going to Indigenous causes Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE (D-Mass.) asked Davis a handful of targeted questions about a potential kids’ platform, including if Facebook would commit to not launch any kids’ platform that allows with influencer marketing or contains “like buttons” and “follower counts.” 

Davis said the company will discuss those questions with experts to decide what is age appropriate.

“It’s not acceptable that you don't have answers for these questions right now. These are the obvious problems that exist,” Markey said. 

In addition to Davis’s testimony, on Wednesday night Facebook released some of the slides of research the Journal reported on with annotations added to the slides to provide context the company said was missing from the reports. 

Looking ahead: Next week senators will hear from a Facebook whistleblower at a hearing on the same topic. 

Blumenthal said there are also future hearings in the works to hear from other tech platforms regarding kids’ online safety. Advocates have raised concerns about YouTube, especially in terms of potentially manipulative marketing tactics targeting young children, as well as the increasingly popular video-sharing app TikTok. 

It’s not yet clear if the additional spotlight on the issue will help push forward proposals aimed at adding further regulations for kids safety online, but during Thursday’s hearing Markey said he would reintroduce that day one such proposal, known as the KIDS Act. The proposal notably lacks GOP support. 





Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos, has allegedly fostered a toxic and sexist workplace culture that subjected employees to harassment, according to an essay published Thursday by a group of current and former employees. 

“Workforce gender gaps are common in the space industry, but at Blue Origin they also manifest in a particular brand of sexism,” they wrote.

The public essay was published by Alexandra Abrams, the former head of Blue Origin employee communications, and 20 other unnamed employees and former employees. 

The employees allege that “numerous senior leaders'' have been known to be “consistently inappropriate with women.” For example, one executive in CEO Bob Smith’s “loyal inner circle” was reported to human resources multiple times for sexual harassment, but Smith made the executive a member of the hiring committee to fill a senior human resources role in 2019, the employees wrote.  

Read more here



The House on Wednesday unanimously passed legislation intended to help strengthen K-12 institutions against cyber threats, which have ticked up as classes have moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The K-12 Cybersecurity Act would require the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to create cybersecurity recommendations and tools for schools to use to defend themselves against hackers, after conducting a study on the cyber risks facing K-12 institutions. 

The Senate unanimously approved the bill last month. There, the legislation is sponsored by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), with Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) primarily sponsoring the bill in the House. It now goes to President Biden for approval. 

“Ransomware and other cyber-attacks that can shut down our K-12 schools and compromise the personal information of our students and dedicated educators are unacceptable and must be stopped,” Peters said in a statement following the late afternoon vote. “We must provide faculty and staff with the resources and means that they often lack to defend themselves and their students against complicated cyber-attacks.”

Read more here. 



Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a co-sponsor of the Freedom to Vote Act, the pared-down version of the For the People Act, said Thursday that the legislation could be brought to the floor for consideration next week, representing another legislative priority that Democrats have failed to achieve so far this session.

Despite moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) being one of several co-sponsors of the bill, the proposal has a good chance of being stonewalled by a Republican filibuster just like its predecessor.

On a phone call with reporters, King explained that Manchin, who had problems with the scope of the For the People Act but has voiced his support for the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, committed to whipping up GOP support for the bill.

“I don't know how that's going, my sense is not well,” King said.

The bill includes language to shore up election security, including requiring states to use voting systems with paper ballots, providing around $3 billion in grants to states to buy voting machines and upgrade cybersecurity, and putting in place election vendor cybersecurity requirements.

Read more here. 





An op-ed to chew on: Leaving no one behind in our post-pandemic recovery: How can technology help?

Lighter click: Let it snow :(

Notable links from around the web:

A hospital hit by hackers, a baby in distress: The case of the first alleged ransomware death (The Wall Street Journal / Kevin Poulsen, Robert McMillan and Melanie Evans) 

How Congress's parade of tech hearings totally lost the plot (Protocol / Ben Brody and Kate Cox)

How a Secret Google Geofence Warrant Helped Catch the Capitol Riot Mob (Wired / Mark HarrisMark HarrisIdaho GOP's power struggle underscores fissures in party Hillicon Valley — Presented by Ericsson — Facebook faces critics on kids' safety North Carolina political operative pleads guilty to ballot fraud MORE)

One last thing: Amazon vs. Macy’s 

Famed U.S. department store Macy’s filed a lawsuit in a bid to prevent Amazon from placing a billboard atop its flagship store in midtown Manhattan.

CNBC reports that the store chain is asking the real estate developer Kaufman Organization to stop Amazon from issuing a large advertisement on the Herald Square Macy’s location. The suit reportedly claims that placing a distracting ad from a rival business would cause “immeasurable” harm to Macy’s. 

“The damages to Macy’s customer goodwill, image, reputation and brand should a prominent online retailer (especially Amazon) advertise on the billboard are impossible to calculate,” court filings reportedly read.

The suit was first reported by Crain’s New York Business Journal.

The billboard is currently host to Macy’s business advertisements. CNBC notes that it has used the billboard in question for over 50 years. Its original lease on the billboard space stated that other retailers would be indefinitely barred from using the sign for ad space.

Read more here. 

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s technology and cybersecurity pages for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you Friday.