Senators Shine a Light on Child Safety on TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube

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WASHINGTON — A Senate panel has broadened its investigation into the impact of social media on young people, interviewing representatives from TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube as lawmakers advocate for new legislation to protect children online.

The Senate Commerce Committee’s panel focused much of its attention Tuesday on TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned short video app, and whether its algorithms steer young users towards harmful content.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Quoted the Wall Street Journal as reporting that she said she showed that “TikTok’s algorithm can push young users into content that glorifies eating disorders, drugs, violence “.

“Did you stop this? Ms. Klobuchar asked Michael Beckerman, vice president and head of public policy in the Americas for TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.

Mr Beckerman said the Journal article did not show “an authentic experience that a real user would have,” adding that the company has “made a number of improvements to the way people control the algorithm and have age-appropriate content on TikTok.

Senator John Thune (R., SD) said Journal reports helped advocate for a bipartisan bill that would require, among other things, that social media platforms provide users with an alternative to opaque algorithms who organize the content they see.

“Congress needs to be heard in this space, especially with regard to the use of algorithms and the way users are manipulated,” he said.

Any new bill faces long chances in a divided Congress. Tuesday’s hearing, which lasted more than three hours, was the last in which lawmakers agreed on the need to address concerns about large tech and social media companies.

A Wall Street Journal survey found that TikTok only needs one important piece of information to understand what you want: the time you spend on a piece of content. Every second that you hesitate or revisit, the application follows you. Photographic illustration: Laura Kammermann / The Wall Street Journal

But like the other hearings, it also highlighted the lack of consensus on the specific laws to be passed.

In addition to Mr Thune’s proposal, lawmakers raised a variety of other ideas on Tuesday, including changing antitrust laws, tightening legal protections social media companies enjoy for hosting user-generated content and l ‘extension of existing legal restrictions on online collection of data on children.

Tuesday’s hearing followed two previous committee hearings triggered by the Journal’s report on internal Facebook Inc.

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documents showing that the company’s products, including its Instagram app, are causing a lot of damage, ranging from social discord to creating negative body images for teenage girls.

Members from both sides said they believe other social media platforms are causing similar problems.

“You too, drive and strive to find something that the children will love and lead more of it towards them. If you learn that a teenager doesn’t feel safe with their body, that’s a recipe for disaster, ”said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Connecticut), chairman of the trade panel’s subcommittee on consumer protection, which held Tuesday’s hearing.

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), The lead Republican on the panel, said almost daily that she heard “stories about children and teens suffering after interacting with TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat.”

Company officials have touted their efforts to make platforms safer, including keeping children away from potentially dangerous content and design features that they say discourage teenagers to compare themselves to their peers.

Mr. Beckerman said TikTok “is not a subscriber-based social network or a social graph. It’s not an app that people check to see what their friends are up to.

Senator Marsha Blackburn (R., Tennessee) said she often hears about young people “who are in pain after interacting with TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat.”


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Samuel Corum / Getty Images

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He said TikTok does not allow users under the age of 16 to host live broadcasts or send direct messages, actions that he said go “against industry standards or our own short-term growth interests, because we are committed to doing the right thing. “

Jennifer Stout, vice president of global public policy at Snap Inc., said her company’s Snapchat app “was designed as an antidote to social media,” highlighting the app’s features, such as deleted messages. default and lack of an “endless stream of unverified content” for users to see.

Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), told Ms Stout that her staff had created a Snapchat account for a 15-year-old user and were offered content involving sexualized video games or pornstars. more politely described as extremely inappropriate for a child. “

Ms Stout said that the app’s’ discovery ‘functionality is tightly moderate and that’ if it violates our guidelines, that type of content will go away. “

Both TikTok and Snap were testifying before Congress for the first time.

Leslie Miller, vice president of public policy at YouTube, touted the platform’s efforts to remove videos that violate child safety policies before they go viral.

She said the company had restricted targeted advertising on content designed for children, a step it took after being fined $ 170 million in 2019 for allegedly violating online privacy rules for children. YouTube did not admit any wrongdoing in the case.

“It is crucial to put in place protections that allow [young people] access to age-appropriate information. We do this by investing in the partnerships, technologies and policies that create safer environments, ”Miller told the Senate panel.

YouTube executive Leslie Miller said the company is restricting targeted advertising on content aimed at children.


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US Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Senator Ben Ray Luján (D., NM) asked Ms Miller if YouTube would disclose view rates for content that violates its policies in Spanish and other languages, as opposed to disclosing aggregate data. Ms. Miller refused to do so.

Several Republican senators asked TikTok about fears the company might share data with the Chinese government.

Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) accused Mr Beckerman of refusing to answer definitively whether other parts of ByteDance could have access to the data collected by TikTok. Mr Beckerman reiterated the company’s long-standing claim that it does not share consumer data with Beijing.

The Trump administration has sought to ban TikTok for these security concerns, an effort that was unwound by the Biden administration, which instead launched a review of all software applications with potential ties to countries like China.

Senators sought, largely unsuccessfully, to identify business support for specific legislative proposals. Witnesses offered broad support for the goals of lawmakers, but often avoided approving specific bills.

“The role of Congress in promoting regulation in this space is absolutely necessary,” said Ms. Stout.

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected]

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