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Federal lawmakers seek regulations on Big Tech to protect kids

WASHINGTON, D.C., March 15, 2023—Social media companies were once again in the crosshairs of lawmakers last month during a hearing with the Senate Judiciary Committee. The central focus of the hearing, which appears to now have strong bipartisan support, was “Protecting Our Children Online.”

The committee heard testimony from mental health experts and child safety advocates, but not from tech company executives or representatives. One of the witnesses, Kristin Bride, spoke of her 16-year-old son, Carson Bride, who took his own life in 2020 after being a target for cyberbullying on Snapchat.

“I don’t know if any or all of you realize what you witnessed today, but this Judiciary Committee crosses the political spectrum, not just from Democrats to Republicans, but from real progressives to real conservatives,” Senator Dick Durbin, the panel’s chair, said during the hearing. “And what you heard was the unanimity of purpose.”

The Kids’ Online Safety Act is currently being pushed by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal and Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. Similarly, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham announced during the hearing he was working with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren in a rare show of unity.

“We have pretty divergent political opinions, except here,” Graham said. “We have to do something and the sooner the better. We are going to approach this from consumer protection. We are going to look at a digital regulatory commission that would have power to shut these sites down if they are not doing ‘best business practices’ to protect children from sexual exploitation online.”

A week prior to the hearing, President Joe Biden called for similar action during his State of the Union address.

“When millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma, we owe them greater access to mental health care at school,” Biden said. “We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit. It’s time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us.”

Few deny the power and influence of “Big Tech” like Google and Meta, but the growing evidence of the detrimental impact social media has on its users is increasingly difficult to refute. 

As the Lynnwood Times reported on in 2021, the Wall Street Journal alleged that Facebook’s — now Meta — own internal studies showed their platforms, Facebook and Instagram, were harmful to the mental health of users, particularly for teenagers. These studies indicated that as many as one-in-three teen girls felt worse about their body while using Instagram.

Senators at last month’s hearing also accused Big Tech of blocking previous attempts at regulation. Lobbying efforts by Big Tech have arguably increased, with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Meta and Apple spending roughly $69 million combined lobbying in 2022.

Last year, Democratic Senator Michael Bennet introduced a bill to create a federal agency to regulate Big Tech companies. The bill — which has still only been introduced — is one of several attempts over the last couple years to regulate Big Tech.

However, unlike previous attempts, bipartisan support appears to be increasing. 

“There are more bills being introduced in this area than any subject matter that I know of,” Blumenthal said. “All of them are bipartisan.”

Advocates like Bride are hopeful that change will occur.

“It is so difficult to tell our stories of the very worst day of our lives over and over and over again and then not see change,” Bride said. “We really are looking to call for action, and I am confident that you can all come together and do this for us and for America’s children.”

These attempts at regulation also come on the heels of a tumultuous year for tech and Meta announcing just this week that it will lay off an additional 10,000 employees and close 5,000 job openings.

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