Mark Zuckerberg’s apology was dramatic, but that alone won’t make children any safer online

Five big tech leaders appeared before the US Senate this week, but it remains to be seen whether anything of substance emerges

By any consideration, it was a moment that will stand as memorable through the blizzard of images we all encounter every day. On Wednesday, at the Dirksen Senate Office, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and creator of Meta, turned and faced members of families whose children had suffered abuse through exposure to the company’s social media platforms. Zuckerberg was one of five leaders in the room of the tech behemoths whose apps shape much of day-to-day life and he faced the thorniest line of questioning in a session that lasted almost four hours.

“Oh nonsense. Your product is killing people,” Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri dismissively told him at one stage over the course of a seven-minute inquisition in which he all but goaded the billionaire into apologising to the families.

“Let me ask you this. They’re here. You’re on national television. Would you like to do so now? Would you like now to apologise to the victims who have been harmed by your platform? Would you like to apologise for what you have done to these good people?”

There’s an unavoidable irony in anyone informing Zuckerberg that he was “on national television”. It seems like a quaint conceit at this stage: the family entertainment object, the “idiot box” of old in the corner of the room, with networks dispensing comedies and talkshows at hours of their choosing, like treats for the nation. Zuckerberg, with the creation of Facebook, became one of the key figures in the massive disruption to the predominance of the television networks and remains a pioneer in the global rush into the labyrinthine tunnels of the internet and the social networks through which we all live now.


Hawley’s anger seemed genuine. Zuckerberg’s discomfort certainly was, and a small army of photographers rushed to position as he made a full turn to face the gallery. Family members held placards of their children aloft. Zuckerberg made a flustered apology for what they had gone through and turned around again.

Tense as the moment was, it remains to be seen if anything of substance emerges. Tech leaders have been hauled over the coals at previous Senate committee hearings and for those campaigning for stricter control and platform provider accountability for online activity, there has been a frustrating lack of legislation enacted. Of the children’s online safety bills drafted, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) might have the strongest possibility of being passed into law. It has 47 senators from both parties sponsoring it and is waiting for a floor vote.

If passed, the act would stipulate that social media platforms implement various design features to protect adolescent users. The act was devised in 2022 in the wake of the revelations, contested by Meta, that the company had knowledge that its platforms could be used in ways harmful to children.

Evan Spiegel, the chief executive of Snap, and X chief executive Linda Yaccarino, both of whom were present on Wednesday, gave commitments that their platforms would support KOSA. Jason Citron, who runs Discord, Shou Zi Chew of TikTok and Zuckerberg stopped short of committing their full support, arguing the point that the act may contravene free-speech issues.

The act would place a new obligation on social media giants to take measures against the instances of bullying, of sexual harassment, of issues relating to self-harm and anorexia, which, the Senate speakers told them bluntly, are destroying young lives. A Pew research centre survey reported in 2022 that 46 per cent of American teenagers had suffered from one of six types of cyberbullying detailed. Twenty-two per cent had rumours spread about them, 17 per cent had been sent unprompted sexual images. A plethora of other studies draw equally disturbing conclusions of social media platforms as ungoverned worlds with too little effort to safeguard children.

The stories from parents who attended the hearing made for harrowing listening in a variety of ways. One of those, Todd Minor, was in the room with a photo of his son Matthew, who died in 2019 aged 12 after taking part in a viral challenge on TikTok.

“It seemed unreal,” he told Pittsburgh NPR of the testimonies he witnessed in Washington. “My lips started to quiver. They seemed so insensitive. They said only one per cent are affected by this. I feel they live in their ivory tower and don’t understand what the common people are going through.”

Minor said, though, he is optimistic that renewed intent on the part of legislators and a growing public unease at the lack of online accountability will lead to significant change: that Wednesday might have been different.

In a curious way, much of the discussion hinges around a legislative act passed when the age of television was at its zenith. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 contained within it a small clause, Section 230, which states, in its entirety, that No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The architects of that legislation, in the early days of the dial-up internet, could not have guessed that technology was on the precipice of the age of mobile technology and smartphones and an entire system of communication through online platforms, with limitless reach. Without that section, the tech giants whose bosses faced a grilling in Washington would either have to screen all their content or remove it as soon as they receive a complaint. In other words, Facebook, Instagram and the rest could never have become what they are without it.

Section 230 was drafted to permit the then-fledgling internet companies to at least attempt to moderate their content. The argument made by the Zuckerberg and his colleagues is that 30 years on, they invest billions doing just that. But in a week when Meta’s share price jumped by 18 per cent and some 3.5 billion use its platforms, the bleak and powerful moment when its founder made eye contact with those people whose family lives have been destroyed because of online content, it is nothing like enough.

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