Will Congress force Big Tech to do more to protect children online?

For all the latest developments in Congress, follow WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller at Today on the Hill.

Members of Congress are growing increasingly frustrated with Big Tech and what many lawmakers believe is lip service to concerns about how social media sites are impacting the mental health of children.

That was clear at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the leaders of five major tech firms were pounded with questions from lawmakers this week.

Executives from Meta, TikTok, the platform ‘X,’ Snap and Discord testified.

These types of hearings have taken place several times in recent years — the CEO of Meta, Mark Zuckerberg, had previously testified eight times.

But the latest hearing had a sharper tone, suggesting lawmakers are ready to do more this time around.

During the hearing, the parents of children who had been bullied and exploited to the point where several died by suicide, held up pictures of those whose lives were cut short.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pressed Zuckerberg on whether he had provided any compensation to parents of children and if he would apologize.

That was when Zuckerberg stood up from the witness table and turned to apologize to the parents.

While it was his most dramatic apology, it’s not the first from Zuckerberg or his company over the years.

Lawmakers at hearings in the past often gently prodded tech leaders to do more, or asked what they felt they could do. But they are now impatient with what they believe are pat answers about spending more money on safety teams, taking down posts and providing tools for parents to monitor their kids’ social media activity.

One of the areas where they believe they can force the companies to act is by hitting their bottom line, by opening them up to legal action.

“I think the time for immunity is done because I think money talks stronger than we talk,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

Many lawmakers from both parties agree that a law that’s been on the books since the advent of the modern internet has to be changed. Section 230 of the 1996 Communication Decency Act shields internet companies from being sued in connection for actions taken by individuals using their services.

There is growing bipartisan support for legislation dealing with Section 230 and several other bills designed to hold social media companies more accountable.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is a co-sponsor of a bill to reform Section 230, which he has said acts as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for major platform companies.

Sen. Dick Durbin, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at the end of the hearing that he plans to press for floor action on a package of child online safety bills.

The package includes five pieces of specific legislation.

“Your carefully crafted algorithms can be a more powerful force on our children, than even the most well-intentioned parent,” Durbin said at the hearing.

He criticized them, adding, “They are responsible for many of the dangers our kids face online.”

“Their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety, have all put our kids and grandkids at risk,” he said.

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Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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