TikTok, Snap and Google’s YouTube are eager to show Congress that they’re not the same as Facebook. But lawmakers had a message Tuesday: That’s not enough.
“Being different from Facebook is not a defense,” Senate Commerce consumer protection Chair Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told the witnesses at a hearing on protecting children online. “That bar is in the gutter.”
The youth-focused social media platforms now find themselves under the same microscope as their larger rival — facing a level of congressional scrutiny they have long avoided.
Recent revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen — whose leaks of thousands of company documents have prompted new troubles in Washington and a flood of media coverage, including POLITICO’s reporting on the Facebook Papers — have increased pressure on the other apps, which have similar issues with underage users, harmful content and addictive algorithms.
“It’s the same rabbit hole,” Blumenthal said, criticizing the apps for business models that thrive on more users spending increasing amounts of time on the platforms.
Tuesday’s hearing was the first time TikTok and Snap have appeared before Congress. Here’s what we learned and what’s next.
TikTok, Snap, YouTube are not the anti-Facebook
In explaining the steps they are taking to protect children, each of the companies emphasized how their products differ from Facebook.
“Snapchat is different,” said the company’s vice president of global public policy, Jennifer Stout. “Snapchat was built as an antidote to social media.” She touted Snap’s ephemerality and the fact that images are deleted by default. She also said that the app does not use algorithms to sort most content and noted the app does not have a “like” button or comments “because we don’t think it should be a popularity contest.” All are features central to Facebook. TikTok Vice President Michael Beckerman said TikTok is “not an app that people check to see what their friends are doing,” an apparent reference to Instagram.
All three companies also tried to dispel concerns that they had ambitions to reach younger children. (Facebook had attempted to do this with its now-paused “Instagram for Kids” project.) Snap said it had “no plans to market to young children” while TikTok said it “made difficult policy and product choices that put the wellbeing of teens first” — like enforcing private accounts for users under the age of 16.
YouTube said it had rolled out “YouTube for Kids,” a separate platform that limits what users can see, when it realized children under 13 were trying to access the main YouTube website.
But lawmakers accused the platforms of being more similar than they’d portrayed — from the way they’re built to benefit from users spending more time on the apps, to the way they exacerbate physical and mental harms among children and teens. Blumenthal said the panel would not take what the companies said “at face value.”
“I’m going to leave to the parents of America and the world whether or not they find your answers sufficient to distinguish you from Facebook,” he said. “There are a lot of questions to be answered here and a lot of intentions to be disputed.”
Zuckerberg may be wrong about impact on rivals’ research
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been warning that backlash to the social network’s internal research sets a dangerous precedent for other tech companies. He has argued that if smaller players see a company like Facebook, which has the resources to invest in learning about and fixing problems, getting attacked for those efforts, others will be deterred from doing that same work. On an earnings call Monday, Zuckerberg said he was worried other companies now won’t be “as introspective as we have been.”
But TikTok, Snap and YouTube have invested heavily in studying issues facing young users, they said at Tuesday’s hearing, and they committed to turning over that research to the Senate panel in the near future. (When pressed to do the same at a hearing in September, Facebook stopped short of agreeing to do so. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it has since turned over such documents to the subcommittee.)
To be sure, that does not solve deeper transparency issues at all the companies. When Blumenthal asked YouTube’s vice president for government affairs and public policy, Leslie Miller, if the company would give independent experts and researchers access to its algorithms to study how they work, she demurred.
Platforms tip-toe around endorsing legislation
Despite lawmakers’ appetite for legislative action, the tech companies were noncommittal when asked whether they’d support specific proposals.
When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked the group whether they’d support his so-called COPPA 2.0 proposal to update decades-old online privacy protections for children, the group said they’d like to continue conversations about it. Markey grew irate.
“This is just what drives us crazy: ‘We want to talk, we want to talk, we want to talk.’ This bill’s been out there for years, and you still don’t have a view on it,” he said, adding: “This is just the old game.”
The companies also avoided throwing their weight behind the EARN IT Act, a bill from last Congress that would amend Section 230 to limit platforms’ liability protections around illegal activity related to child sexual abuse material.
Instead, Snap and TikTok said only that they endorsed the “spirit” of the legislation. Beckerman expressed concerns that changes to Section 230 — the legal provision that shields companies from liability over user content on their sites — could lead to “unintended consequences” that would hamper companies’ ability to moderate content.
Blumenthal said agreeing with the goals of legislation is “meaningless unless you support the legislation.” He added after the hearing that “those expressions of good intentions are belied by armies of lobbyists and millions of dollars spent to fight [the] very reforms that we have advocated in the past.”
The subcommittee plans to push forward with bipartisan legislation to update federal children’s online privacy laws, the KIDS Act and bipartisan measures dealing with social media algorithms, Blumenthal told reporters after the hearing.
More hearings and proposals to come
Despite the lack of support TikTok, YouTube and Snap had for specific legislation on Section 230 reform, Blumenthal still plans to push forward. He said the EARN IT Act could be approved by the end of this Congress (though the bill has yet to be reintroduced this session).
Hearings and markups for the various kids-focused legislative proposals will happen in the coming weeks and months, Blumenthal told reporters after the hearing. He added that “the legislative strategy remains to be determined” but that “we’re going to try to take the best of each of those proposals” in whatever individual legislation or package they decide to move forward.
The chair would not share more specifics on when that might be or who would be asked to testify — but there could be a familiar face on the witness stand.
“We may want to hear again from Frances Haugen as to what she thinks is to be recommended,” he said.