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Meta’s Zuckerberg issues dramatic apology at Senate hearing on child safety

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Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg was pushed to publicly apologise to the families of people who said they had been harmed by his social media platform, a dramatic moment in a heated congressional hearing over child safety online.

Zuckerberg, whose Meta is the parent of popular platforms Facebook and Instagram, came under particular fire by irate lawmakers during Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate judiciary committee over whether social media companies have done enough to protect younger users from child predators, pornography and other harmful content.

The committee began by showing an evocative video of victims speaking about sexual abuse on the platforms, as well as parents of children who had died by suicide after being exploited online.

Later, after being called upon repeatedly by Republican Senator Josh Hawley to apologise to victims, Zuckerberg turned round to the large crowd of families present behind him, many of whom held photographs of lost loved ones, and said that he was sorry for everything that they had been through.

“No one should go through the things your families have suffered,” he said, adding that Meta was investing in “industry-leading efforts” to prevent families from going through such things in the future.

The hearing also featured testimony from X’s Linda Yaccarino, TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew, Snap’s Evan Spiegel and Discord’s Jason Citron. All came under fierce questioning from both sides of the political spectrum.

But the session was particularly disastrous for Zuckerberg, who has attempted to rehabilitate his image recently. He also faced accusations from Republicans that he had lied previously Congress about the harm done by his platforms.

“Mr Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us — I know you don’t mean it to be so — but you have blood on your hands,” said Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator and the committee’s top Republican, in his opening remarks, prompting applause from those gathered. “You have a product that’s killing people.”

The hearing comes as Congress considers several proposed pieces of federal legislation that target the Silicon Valley groups, such as the controversial Kids Online Safety Act, which requires platforms to protect children from online harms.

However, the Senate and the House have so far failed to find consensus on the precise measures that should be taken. Bills such as the Kids Online Safety Act have faced pushback from technology platforms and the trade groups that represent them. 

During the hearing, the executives gave a mixed response to the series of current proposals. In his testimony, Zuckerberg called for lawmakers instead to mandate regulation requiring Apple and Google app stores to verify the age of younger users. He reiterated the long-standing assertion that the platform had introduced numerous tools and features to protect children. 

In her opening statement, Yaccarino insisted that X, formerly known as Twitter, was “not the platform of choice for children and teens” and “does not have a line of business dedicated to children”. 

But she and Spiegel won plaudits for their open support of the Kids Online Safety Act.

This stood in contrast to an exchange with Citron, who balked when asked by Graham if the gaming-focused chat messaging group supported the various proposed pieces of legislation, such as the Stop CSAM [Child Sexual Abuse Material] Act, one by one. Citron avoided answering in the affirmative, prompting Graham to state: “If you’re waiting on these guys to solve the problem, we’re going to die waiting.”

The CEOs who testified at Wednesday’s hearing, from right: Mark Zuckerberg, Linda Yaccarino, Shou Zi Chew, Evan Spiegel and Jason Citron © AP

TikTok’s Chew also avoided committing to some of the bills, but insisted that the company expected to invest more than $2bn in trust and safety efforts this year. Chew repeatedly faced accusations from some Republican senators — which he denied — that TikTok shares data with Beijing and represents a national security risk, given its Chinese parent, ByteDance.

In one rare moment of consensus, the chief executives all suggested they were open to the idea of a federal regulatory agency focused on tech and social media.

Ahead of the sessions, lawmakers released internal documents and emails showing that Zuckerberg had rejected requests from global affairs head Nick Clegg in 2021 to increase staff levels to bolster its efforts on child safety.

Meta said in a statement that the emails showed requests to expand existing wellbeing teams, adding: “The cherry-picked documents do not provide the full context of how the company operates or what decisions were made.”

Meta had already been singled out recently, with the US state of New Mexico filing a lawsuit in December arguing the platform failed to remove child sexual abuse material from its platforms and was a “prime location for predators”. The accusations followed an undercover months-long investigation in which the attorney-general created “decoy accounts” posing as children aged 14 and under. 

A Wall Street Journal investigation also found that its algorithms facilitated the creation of a network to buy and sell underage sex content. Meta said at the time that it had improved its proactive detection of potentially suspicious groups. 

“Their design choices, their failures to adequately invest in trust and safety, and their constant pursuit of engagement and profit over basic safety have all put our kids and grandkids at risk,” Senator Dick Durbin, the committee’s Democratic chair, said of the platforms on Wednesday.

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