The KOSA bill, which is controversial, will be a big deal at the meeting on Wednesday.
The heads of some of the biggest social networks will go before Congress on Wednesday to defend their businesses against growing claims that they don’t do enough to keep kids and teens safe online.
The meeting, which starts at 10 a.m. ET, is the latest in a long line of tech hearings in Congress that go back years. Despite all the work, there haven’t been many new rules or policies made.
The latest meeting will be held by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is notable for bringing five CEOs from across the country to answer a lot of questions from lawmakers. Tech companies usually make Congress happy by bringing a lawyer or a policy executive, but this time, there will be a group of CEOs there: Mark Zuckerberg of Meta, Linda Yaccarino of X (formerly Twitter), Shu Chew of TikTok, Jason Citron of Discord, and Evan Spiegel of Snap. Zuckerberg and Chew were the only executives who decided to go to the hearing without being asked to.
It takes a long time and a lot of back and forth to hold tech companies accountable. But Yaccarino, Spiegel, and Citron will be attending their first televised meeting on Wednesday. Snap and X have sent other executives (or their previous CEO) in the past, but this is the first time that Discord, a chat app that was originally made for gamers, is in the hot seat. All three first-timers, but especially Yaccarino, could make some interesting off-script moments. In recent talks as X’s top executive, Elon Musk’s choice to lead the company has come across as shaky and hostile, which is very different from her over-trained peers in the media, such as Zuckerberg and Chew.
Even though a lot of young people use the app Discord, it’s still strange to hear this name at one of these meetings. The committee probably chose to include Discord because of an NBC News story from last year that looked into sextortion and child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the chat platform. It’s interesting that the company is there, especially since more well-known algorithm-based social networks like YouTube are often mysteriously missing from these events, as well as Amazon-owned livestreaming giant Twitch.
The meeting on Wednesday, called “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis,” will be about a lot more than its short title suggests. Lawmakers are likely to look into a number of concerns, both new and old, about how social networks don’t keep young people safe from harmful material. There are serious concerns about Instagram openly connecting sexual predators with sellers advertising CSAM, as the WSJ previously reported. Also, an investigation by NBC News found that Discord has helped with dozens of cases of grooming, kidnapping, and other forms of sexual exploitation in the past few years.
As well as worries that social networks don’t do enough to keep kids safe from sexual predators, lawmakers will likely question the five tech CEOs about other issues related to online safety, such as the fact that Snapchat has people selling fentanyl, X has a lot of white supremacist content, and TikTok has a lot of content about self-harm and suicide. And because X failed badly to stop a recent flood of inappropriate images created by AI featuring Taylor Swift, and because of the company’s lackluster reaction, you can also expect some questions about Taylor Swift.
Tech companies are likely to fight back, showing lawmakers changes to their platforms and policies that are meant to make these apps safer or just make Congress happy in time for this meeting. In Meta’s case, it looks like an update to Facebook and Instagram last week stopped teens from getting direct texts from people they don’t know. This is another change made by a company like Meta that makes me wonder why these safety features aren’t built into the product from the start before it was made available to kids.
KOSA Is Big
This time, the hearing is part of a planned effort to pass the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a controversial law that supposedly requires tech companies to do more to protect kids from harmful material online. Even though some changes have been made to the bill, many people who are against it warn that KOSA would heavily clean up the internet, encourage censorship, and put young LGBTQ people in danger. A co-sponsor of the bill, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, and other conservatives have said that KOSA should be used to delete transgender information online for teens and young adults.
In a statement sent to TechCrunch, the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD said it was worried about the hearing and the linked legislation. It asked lawmakers to make sure that “proposed solutions be carefully crafted” so that they don’t hurt the LGBTQ community.
“At the US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, anti-LGBTQ lawmakers will likely try to falsely link age-appropriate LGBTQ resources and content with inappropriate content,” GLAAD said. “Parents and teens do need to do something about the bad business practices of Big Tech platforms, but age-appropriate information about LGBTQ people should not be mixed in with that kind of content.”
Along with other groups worried about what the bill would mean for security, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have also spoken out against the bill. Concerns like these have been raised about the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (now called “COPPA 2.0”), the STOP CSAM Act, and the EARN IT Act, which are all bills that are close together and are meant to protect kids online.
The people who support the bill are not all Republican. Right now, both Democrats and Republicans back KOSA, and the concerns raised by its opponents haven’t gotten through to the many Democrats who are in favor of it. The bill is also supported by groups that work to keep kids safe online, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, and Fairplay, a non-profit that works to keep kids safe online.
Director of Fairplay, Josh Golin, told TechCrunch, “KOSA is a needed corrective to social media platforms’ toxic business model, which relies on maximizing engagement by any means necessary, including sending kids down deadly rabbit holes and adding features that make young people vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.” Fairplay has also put together a group of parents who support KOSA because their children have died because of abuse, buying drugs on social media, and other harmful things that happen online.
One of the companies that the bill wants to control is one of KOSA’s strangest supporters as of last week. Last week, Snap broke with its peers to back KOSA. This was probably done to make the company more popular with regulators who could decide its fate or, more importantly, the fate of TikTok, Snap’s biggest competitor, which gets most of young people’s screen time.
In 2018, Snap went against its tech peers and even its own industry group on KOSA. This is similar to what Meta, then Facebook, did when it backed the controversial FOSTA-SESTA rules. That bill, which was sold as a way to stop online sex trafficking, became law. But now, years later, FOSTA-SESTA is better known for keeping sex workers away from safe online places than for stopping sex trafficking.
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