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Senate demands Big Tech execs testify amid child safety probe

The CEOs of X, Twitter and Discord have so far resisted calls to appear before lawmakers, but Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok head Zhou Chew are expected to testify at an upcoming hearing.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas Monday to a trio of tech executives who lawmakers say have refused to voluntarily testify about the threats children face on social media and other online platforms.

The upper chamber’s legal affairs panel has for months explored steps to hold Big Tech firms accountable for what they frame as failures to protect minors from dangerous and exploitative content online. The committee has considered legislation that, among other things, would raise reporting requirements for companies investigating content on their platforms and would revamp the investigation of online child exploitation crimes.

Now, the Senate is looking to grill executives from some of those companies in person during a Judiciary Committee hearing, set for Dec. 6. A pair of influential figures in Big Tech — Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and TikTok CEO Shou Chew — are expected to testify, although the panel has said that negotiations are ongoing.

While Zuckerberg and Chew, who have previously appeared before Congress, appear to be playing ball with lawmakers, some other tech executives have been more resistant, spurring drastic action from the committee.

Led by Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin and ranking member Lindsey Graham, the panel announced on Monday that it had issued subpoenas to the heads of three major tech companies: Linda Yaccarino, CEO of X, formerly Twitter; Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel; and Jason Citron, CEO of gaming-focused messaging platform Discord.

The committee moved to legally compel testimony from the three executives after “repeated refusals to appear during several weeks of negotiations,” Durbin and Graham said in a statement. The panel had to enlist the help of U.S. Marshals to serve some of the subpoenas, the lawmakers added, after both Discord and X refused to voluntarily accept them.

Durbin and Graham framed the December hearing as an opportunity for Big Tech leaders to explain themselves.

“Big Tech’s failure to police itself at the expense of our kids cannot go unanswered,” the committee leaders said.  “Hearing from the CEOs of some of the world’s largest social media companies will help inform the committee’s efforts to address the crisis of online child sexual exploitation.”

The Judiciary Committee is amping up pressure on Big Tech just weeks after the panel heard from an industry whistleblower who alleged that Meta ignored warnings that its services recommend harmful content to children.

Former Facebook contractor Arturo Bejar told lawmakers that the company’s top executives were aware of the problem but had not taken sufficient action to address it.

“Meta knows the harm that kids are experiencing on their platforms,” Bejar said. “They are deciding time and time again not to tackle these issues.”

Neither Meta CEO Zuckerberg nor Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg responded to his warnings, the whistleblower testified.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee has advanced five bills aimed at clamping down on Big Tech’s posture towards harmful content online. Among those is the bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act, spearheaded by Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn. The lawmakers say their bill, if made law, would make it easier for minors to protect their identity online and would increase accountability for tech companies hosting potentially harmful content.

The Kids Online Safety Act, alongside a tranche of four other similar pieces of legislation, is currently in a holding pattern on the Senate floor.

Durbin, the Senate’s majority whip, mused earlier this month that Big Tech’s lobbying power on Capitol Hill could be holding things up.

“Six bills passed unanimously on a bipartisan basis,” he said, “which add real teeth and enforcement. I think that’s why they’ve gone nowhere. Big Tech is the big kid on the block when it comes to this issue.”

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Government, National, Politics, Technology

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