Lack of Congressional Action to Protect Children Online Criticized in U.S. Senate Hearing

WASHINGTON. U.S. senators on Tuesday expressed disappointment and outrage at the failure of Congress to pass legislation to strengthen online protection for children, including adding guardrails to social media platforms.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats and Republicans pledged to continue working together to pass several bipartisan bills that missed President Joe Biden’s desk during the latest session.

But they also discussed the best way to protect children online from sexual exploitation, mental health issues, poor privacy protections, and companies that target children to sell their data to advertisers.

“This is just another reminder of how frustrating, maddening and downright outrageous it is that Congress has not been able to deal with this in a more timely and more focused manner,” Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn said. “But I’m also reminded that technology doesn’t move at the speed of legislation.”

Oregon parent testifies

Christine Bride, a social media reform advocate from Portland, Oregon, told the group how her 16-year-old son Carson committed suicide after he was harassed online by people who could remain anonymous through certain apps.

Bride told senators she learned after her son committed suicide that he received about 100 negative, offensive or sexually explicit messages that led to his death.

She also said that despite one of the companies writing in their terms of use that it would monitor cyberbullying and disclose the identities of people who violated its policies, the company ignored her four requests for information.

She then filed a lawsuit, which was rejected because Art. 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 exempts companies from liability for content that third parties post on their websites.

“There is no need for grieving parents to file lawsuits to hold this industry accountable for their dangerous and addictive product designs,” Bride said. “Federal legislation, such as the Children’s Online Safety Act, which requires social media to exercise caution when designing their products for America’s children, is long overdue.”

Line of cyber hints

Michelle DeLaune, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told the committee that more than 3.2 million reports of child abuse in the United States had reached the organization’s information line in the past year.

But the quality of the information in the reports is “often lacking, and there are significant discrepancies in how companies report,” she said.

“For example, companies are not required to report child sex trafficking or online child abuse,” DeLaun said. “Some companies choose not to provide enough information to properly assess and investigate these cases. And some companies choose not to provide the actual images or videos being reported, or any information that could be used to identify a suspect or victim.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children “only sees the tip of the iceberg,” she said, as “very few companies take voluntary action to identify known child sexual abuse material, and those actively seeking such material report most.”

But Congress, DeLauna said, has the ability to make changes, including giving victims of child sexual abuse more power than they currently have.

“Currently, child victims have no way to seek help unless the tech company takes action to stop, remove and report sexually explicit images of them,” DeLaun said.

Several variants

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham summed up the lack of options for parents and survivors of abuse against tech and social media companies, stating, “You can’t sue them, there’s no agency that can change their behavior, and there are no book laws.” that will stop this abusive behavior.”

Bride told the committee the best option was to increase security measures, noting that at one point cars were much more dangerous until the government began requiring seat belts and airbags.

John Pizzuro, former head of New Jersey’s online child crime unit and CEO of child exploitation firm Raven, called the online environment for children “appalling.”

Many police departments are inundated with reports of online child exploitation, Pizzuro said, making it extremely difficult to actively investigate.

“Children are made vulnerable on these platforms due to poor moderation, lack of age or identity verification, inadequate or non-existent security mechanisms, and the sheer determination of offenders,” Pizzuro said.

Emma Lembke, founder of the Log Off Movement, who is originally from Alabama but attends college in Missouri, urged the committee to take steps to strengthen social media protections for teens.

“The genie is out of the bottle and we will never go back to the time when social media didn’t exist and we shouldn’t,” Lembke said. “But make no mistake, unregulated social media is a weapon of mass destruction that continues to threaten the safety, privacy, and well-being of all American youth.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, has promised to at least pass a surcharge in this Congress, a process that will move legislation forward and allow committee members to debate and vote on amendments.

“Just like in the real world, we need to protect our children in the virtual world,” Durbin said. “This is not a partisan problem, it is a problem that keeps parents and children up at night. He deserves the attention of this committee and this Congress. And it deserves action.”

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