Feb 2 2024

Key Takeaways from the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Hearing with Social Media CEOs

Post By: Safer / 4 min read


“The most important thing to come out of today's hearing was the elevated awareness of online child sexual exploitation and attention to just how pervasive and devastating it is. While we heard various statements from platforms and legislators, the impact of their statements is dependent on follow-through. Keeping everyone accountable for their commitments will be critical." - Emily Slifer, Thorn’s Director of Policy

Social media CEOs swear in for the hearing
Social media CEOs swear in for the hearing

Why did the hearing take place?

Today’s children grow up with phones in their hands and—depending on their ages—near-constant access to social networking, messaging, and gaming platforms. As the use of these platforms grows more and more common for young people, so do the dangers and risks they face online.

Most internet platforms weren’t built with child safety in mind—and now, we’re seeing the consequences of that with the viral spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the web, as well as the dramatic rise of grooming, sextortion, and other abuse and exploitation.

This week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was intended to address this climate and put the CEOs of some of the largest social media companies on the spot about their role in responding to the harms happening to young people on their platform.

The hearing was pivotal in combating online child sexual abuse. It brought together those CEOs and influential senators to spotlight this urgent issue, pushing it into the public consciousness. The hearing’s long-term effects remain to be seen, but its immediate role in escalating the conversation around digital child safety is clear.

What Online Platforms Can Take Away

Present at the hearing were Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, and Discord CEO Jason Citron. Thorn attended the hearing as well, and from our perspective, here are our three key takeaways:

1. Productive collaboration between policymakers and industry is necessary to make the Internet safer for children.

The overarching takeaway from the hearing was that everyone has a part to play in the fight against online child sexual exploitation. Trust and safety teams, policymakers, law enforcement, and NGOs all play key roles in the child safety ecosystem.

As Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted in his opening statement, this hearing can serve as a call to action for policymakers and platforms alike to make meaningful changes in regard to child safety online.

At Thorn, we understand that tackling the issue of child sexual abuse requires a united front. That’s why we’re committed to providing resources and tools for content-hosting platforms to help them combat child sexual abuse and exploitation at scale. By working together, we can share expertise and create a more formidable defense against threats to children. To that end, we are eager to see future action stemming from the commitments made at the hearing—and a willingness to collaborate to ensure child safety comes first.

2. Policymakers desire much more transparency and accountability from online platforms. Throughout the hearing, there were various calls for increased accountability and transparency from platforms.

In his opening statements, Ranking Member Lindsey Graham (R-SC) highlighted the need for accountability. Later on, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) questioned the CEOs on whether or not voluntary disclosures of information about explicit content and harm are sufficient, stating that policymakers need better data to assess the true scale of the problem and to clearly discern whether safety measures in place are working to keep kids safe.

At Thorn, we, too, support increased transparency and accountability on behalf of tech companies—and we are eager to play a role in helping them implement increased safety measures on their platforms. This will look different for each platform.

3. Companies must urgently prioritize safety—before children experience even more harm. The need for tech companies to take immediate action to stop the viral spread of CSAM on their platforms and build safer spaces for children came up frequently.

Whether it be parental consent features, tailored restrictions on minors’ accounts, grooming prevention, or in-app reporting, the CEOs present were strongly urged to rethink how they prioritize safety on their platforms and make investments in their Trust and Safety teams, tooling, and content moderation processes. At Thorn, we believe in equipping Trust and Safety to effectively protect their platforms as it impacts the safety of children directly. By layering machine learning and human moderation, platforms can comprehensively and proactively identify abuse while reporting only true positives to NGO and law enforcement partners.

Legislation Mentioned at the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing:

  • Strengthening Transparency and Obligations to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment Act (STOP CSAM Act)
  • Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT Act)
  • Revising Existing Procedures on Reporting via Technology (REPORT) Act
  • Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA)
  • Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution (SHIELD) Act
  • Project Safe Childhood Act
  • Platform Accountability and Transparency Act (PATA)

What’s next?

From Thorn's perspective, this Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is already playing a role in raising public and legislative awareness about the pervasive issue of child sexual abuse in the digital age. The participation of high-profile tech CEOs, present alongside influential senators, guarantees significant attention, helping to bring the severity and prevalence of these risks to the forefront of national discourse.
Now, it’s time for action: We and others who are fully invested in protecting children in the digital age will continue to watch the resulting actions on behalf of those who testified closely—and assist them however possible in their efforts to build safer spaces for kids.

Collaboration is key

As Thorn continues our pursuit to build technology to defend children from sexual abuse, the importance of collaboration and persistence becomes ever clearer. The hearing was a call to action for sustained commitment and partnership between tech companies, legislators, and child safety organizations like ours.

It is only by working together as a full child safety ecosystem that we can turn the tide against threats to children, ensuring their safety and well-being in today’s digital age.

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