Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he once again hopes that revelations about the harms of social media will put pressure on Congress to protect young users and hold major tech companies accountable.
Blumenthal led a hearing on Tuesday featuring Meta whistleblower Arturo Béjar, whose testimony detailed his warnings to executives that went ignored and his own teenage daughter’s experiences on Instagram with online harassment. At the parent company, he worked as an engineering director for Facebook for six years and returned as a consultant to work on Instagram’s well-being team up until 2021.
Béjar’s testimony comes two years after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen argued before Congress that Facebook and Instagram put profits over safeguards for minors. Her insight into how these platforms hurt children’s mental health spurred various federal proposals, including Blumenthal’s Kids Online Safety Act.
After learning that the company was not taking his concerns seriously, Béjar argued that parents and children cannot trust social media sites like Facebook and that Congress needs to act. Blumenthal added that he hopes Béjar’s testimony will “enable us to get the Kids Online Safety Act across the finish line.”
“Big Tech is the next Big Tobacco,” Blumenthal said at the hearing as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. “The same kind of addictive product that Big Tobacco peddled to kids now is advanced to them and promoted and pitched by Big Tech.”
“My hope is colleagues will join … in seeking action on a very doable, practical, politically achievable bill that targets the design of this product much as we would a safer car or stopping addiction to cigarettes and tobacco and nicotine.”
Blumenthal’s bill, which was co-authored by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has seen some movement this year, with the Senate Commerce Committee once again advancing it in July and building more support among colleagues.
The Kids Online Safety Act aims to put in place stricter settings by allowing children and parents to disable addictive features, enable privacy settings and opt out of algorithmic recommendations. It also establishes a “duty of care” for sites used by young individuals “to act in the best interests of a minor” when it comes to certain mental health disorders, physical violence, online bullying and sexual exploitation.
But the legislation still faces headwinds. It has yet to be scheduled for a vote before the full Senate. House lawmakers, meanwhile, want to prioritize broader privacy legislation and have not filed any companion bills related to children’s online safety.
And civil liberties, digital privacy and LGBTQ+ rights groups continue to raise major concerns about the potential censorship of younger users, the debate over what content is deemed “appropriate” and the discretion that would be given to state attorneys general.
Blumenthal and Blackburn have made adjustments to their legislation a few times to accommodate those concerns, including identifying protections for services like the National Suicide Hotline, substance abuse organizations and LGBTQ+ youth centers.
But many still have serious reservations about the bill. When the bill came up in committee over the summer, Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted that she heard about persistent concerns from LGBTQ+ advocates and would try to keep addressing them.
“KOSA would also incentivize Big Tech platforms to engage in even more intrusive data collection, which disproportionately puts trans kids and their families at risk as more and more states move to strip us of our rights and criminalize our kids’ health care, education, and very existence,” a letter reads, which was organized by Fight for the Future on behalf of a group of trans and gender expansive parents. “We need to hold these companies accountable and regulate them, not cut our kids off from resources that can help them thrive.”
Still, lawmakers in both parties are pushing for at least passage in the Senate by the end of the year. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has previously expressed support for the Kids Online Safety Act and other tech measures. And they feel more confident Béjar’s testimony could speed up consideration.
While he confronted these issues in his work, Béjar’s own family had its own experiences with disturbing content on social media. He testified that his 14-year-old daughter and her friends at the time were receiving unwanted sexual advances, misogyny and harassment on Instagram.
Béjar said he wrote an email to Meta executives, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg, about data on teenagers under 16 experiencing bullying and other forms of harassment on the platforms. He testified he did not get a reply or meet with Zuckerberg.
“When I left Facebook in 2021, I thought the company would take my concerns and accommodations seriously, to heart, and act,” Béjar testified. “Yet years have gone by, and millions of teens are having their mental health compromised and are still being traumatized by unwanted sexual advances, harmful content on Instagram and other social media platforms.”
While proponents of the legislation are frustrated with years-long inaction in Congress, they pinned the blame on the extensive lobbying efforts of the tech industry, with some calling on members to no longer accept their political donations.
“It is an indictment of this body, to be honest with you, that we have not acted. And we all know the reason why: Big Tech is the biggest, most powerful lobby in the United States Congress,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who is the ranking member of the Judiciary subcommittee. “They successfully shut down every meaningful piece of legislation every year.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.