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What does it take to protect children online?
Feb 8, 2024

What does it take to protect children online?

Sen. Amy Klobuchar says the point of tech CEO hearings is to get support for laws that will keep kids safe from exploitation.

A week later and we’re still thinking about the hearing that saw half a dozen tech CEOs testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on keeping kids safe online. It left us wondering: Why do lawmakers hold these hearings then fail again and again to pass federal laws to keep Big Tech in check?

One thing was clear: The importance of keeping kids safe online is one of the few things that a lot of Democratic and Republican senators agree on. Take for example the SHIELD Act, a bill co-sponsored by members of both parties.

One of those members is Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She told Marketplace’s Lily Jamali it’s hard to get bills like that through Congress given how much influence tech companies wield in Washington. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Amy Klobuchar: The [tech] companies have tried to do a number of things to stop these bills on the competition side, privacy side and kids side. So here’s what they do: The first move, always an easy one, “Oh, Congress is too dumb to understand that.” That’s not true of the Senate Judiciary Committee. No one can say that; you might disagree with people, but they do understand it. Second one, divide and conquer. They tell Republicans, “Oh, if you do this, that’ll stop free enterprise.” They tell Democrats, “If you do this, you’re not going to be able to protect people.” The final thing they’re banking on is it’s too esoteric and it won’t matter. When those parents stood behind those CEOs holding up the pictures of their kids, that was a game-changer.

Lily Jamali: I think if you could help us in the public understand the value of these hearings as an exercise, I know I would appreciate that, because there are all these viral moments that come out of them and then nothing happens. Ultimately, it is up to lawmakers to make something happen. So why dwell on whether CEOs support or don’t support a certain measure?

Klobuchar: Ah, that’s — we’ve got to acknowledge the truth. They have stopped every single measure from going through. So if there’s a crack in the armor, and a few of the companies support one bill, that actually helps me to get it done if I get them on the record, because then that puts pressure on the other companies. Actually, the fact that we have arrived on a grouping of bills on kids’ [online safety] that we believe together will work, that makes a difference, because otherwise, we’re just in the era of “trust us,” and that era has ended.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, speaks to families of victims as he testifies during the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis” on Jan. 31. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images)

Jamali: So when you hear at this hearing last week the CEO of Discord capitulate to you and say that he will support the SHIELD Act, which you co-sponsored with Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican of Texas, what you’re saying is that actually means something?

Klobuchar: It does, or X also supported the SHIELD Act and Sen. Durbin’s bill, which would make it clear that [social media companies] are accountable for child pornography if it’s on their platforms. Yeah, it does mean something, because then we can use it with our colleagues, because everyone likes to act like these are crazy ideas — “Why are you trying to regulate this?” But I keep reminding them, they put this protection in called Section 230, where they can’t be liable for anything. They put that in when it was a burgeoning industry, when it wasn’t even an industry, when these companies were starting in a garage. Now, they are the biggest companies in the world. And we are seeing work in other countries — Australia and Canada have taken steps to make sure that reporters and news media organizations are compensated for their content. Sen. [John] Kennedy [R-La.] and I have a bill that would do that. These kinds of things are happening right around us. And I don’t think we should be following, I think we should be leading in terms of putting in place the protections we need. And with AI, it’s even going to get more difficult. So the answer is to stop throwing the popcorn and actually get these bills passed.

Jamali: So on the issue of child safety online, Ohio passed a law that would require parental consent for kids to use social media. I want to ask you, where do you think the balance lies between protecting kids using that method and making sure that lawmakers don’t infringe on teenagers expressing themselves and their rights to free speech?

Klobuchar: Exactly. And we’re not talking here about banning kids from using all social media. But there are all kinds of rules you can put in place to protect them. One is about the data and how the data is shared on the kit. One is to make sure what they have access to and what they don’t have access to. But where the line is right now, the amorphous situation we’re in when they claim they’re protecting these kids and they’re not, and it’s getting worse and not better, we know that’s not working.

Jamali: How do you feel about states being as involved as they are? When you introduced the SHIELD Act last year, you wrote that state laws offer protection that is incomplete and inconsistent, I believe was the wording that you used.

Klobuchar: I’m glad that states are moving ahead. I’m sure I wouldn’t agree or don’t agree with every single thing they’re doing by any means, but that often creates pressure for federal laws. And so I’m actually heartened by the fact that states are moving because at some point, that’s going to create more momentum to do something federally. But that being said, it’s not the way to run a railroad. It is much better if we had strong federal laws that were the same across the board and actually worked. It’s going to protect more kids, and it’s also going to protect competition, especially in the competition side, because our antitrust laws, while there are state antitrust laws, they tend to be federally enforced. That’s so important.

The other thing, when you asked about hearings, having hearings like the one I did on Ticketmaster, just to drop a name, you actually get information from people under oath that the agencies can then use. And that is, there’s an ongoing investigation out of the Justice Department on Ticketmaster. That hearing, the information they got there, was helpful. The other thing you get out of it is it educates the public. They start to be with you more, and they start to understand the issue. Because believe me, the companies have every interest in just keeping this quiet, these problems quiet, maybe they have this or that, trying to make sure no one knows about stuff going wrong. And so to not have any transparency, it’s a huge mistake. So I just look at the hearings as giving information to the Justice Department or the FTC [Federal Trade Commission], to help them in their investigations and creating public knowledge of what’s happening. And then sometimes, Ticketmaster example, that does lead to some legislation. But we still know the big thing is the agency’s pursuing some of these actions that Congress is not going to pursue.

Jamali: When you have a patchwork of state regulation, do some of your colleagues feel like that gives them a pass on having to do something here?

Klobuchar: They always are looking for passes; that’s usually not one of them, because what happens is the companies then start complaining about the patchwork, and they have these different things. So that actually usually helps to get some things done. The key is when the companies wait so long, and the patchwork gets harder and harder to deal with, then sometimes they’ve waited so long that there are interests that are devoted to the state regulation that, say in big states, that won’t make a compromise. And that’s the nature of it. I always think, like on AI right now, the fact that the AI people, Microsoft, they’re coming and saying, “We need some regulation in place.” That’s a welcome way to handle it than just saying, “Oh, we don’t want anything.”

Jamali: What can we expect now, after last week’s hearing?

Klobuchar: So Sen. [Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer [D-N.Y.] is committed to taking a group of these bills and forming them into one bill and having a vote on it. I believe that we have to get through the crisis we’re in right now about restoring the world order and keeping our leadership in the world and keeping our security strong. That’s the bill in front of us now. Then we move to the budget, which will take a few weeks, if not months. And then I hope that after that we turn to — they’re two separate issues — but the child’s protection, knowing that my antitrust competition work probably will see another day, but I’m continuing to push those bills through. And then the AI work. So those are two big things that have bipartisan support that I would like to see done before this summer, because once you get too close to the election, it’s really hard to get them done.

Jamali: I know you talk to parents about this issue of child safety online. What is your sense of what they want companies to do?

Klobuchar: They want the companies to step up and stop pretending that they have nothing to do with this. They cannot stand that the answer is always “Well, maybe this mom should have known about this product that we put in place four years ago that you could have downloaded, and then it would have helped with this.” That is just a ridiculous situation for parents to try to deal with, especially when the kids oftentimes know more than the parents about how to deal with these apps. The parents want to be parents, and they want the companies to stop standing in the way of them being good parents. And that is everything from hooking kids on these products, to targeting the kids with algorithms, to exposing them to content that is damaging and that may actually result in them either taking their own lives or getting a drug overdose. I think those are pretty straightforward desires from the parents of this country.

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