Child Safety Hearing: Tech Chiefs of Meta, TikTok and Others to Testify on Child Safety Online

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Hours before Mark Zuckerberg, Meta's chief executive, testified Wednesday about child safety online, lawmakers released internal documents showing how his company had rejected calls to increase resources to combat the problem.

In 90 pages of internal emails from fall 2021, top officials at Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, discussed bringing in dozens of engineers and other employees to focus on the well-being and safety of children. A proposal made to Mr. Zuckerberg for 45 new staff members was rejected.

The documents, which are published in full for the first time, were cited in a lawsuit last year by 33 state attorneys general who accused Meta of hooking young users on its apps. They contradict statements from company executives, including the head of global security and the head of Instagram, who testified in Congress audiences on child safety during that period, they prioritized the well-being of their youngest users and would work harder to combat harmful content on their platform.

Zuckerberg, who will testify before Congress on Wednesday for the eighth time, is hard-pressed to defend Meta's lack of investment in child safety amid growing complaints of toxic and harmful content online, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. . who released the emails with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee.

“The hypocrisy is mind-boggling,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “We've heard time and time again how much they care and are working on this, but the documents paint a very different picture.”

Meta has created more than 30 tools to help protect teens and has a “robust” team that monitors the well-being of young people, Meta spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement, adding that “these carefully selected documents do not provide the necessary information. full context of how the company operates or what decisions were made.”

The emails included Mr. Zuckerberg; former COO Sheryl Sandberg; and Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs, although they did not always respond. The emails show top executives discussing budgets and headcounts, while acknowledging regulatory threats related to their handling of teenage users.

One incident revealed in the documents was a request by Mr Clegg in August 2021 for the 45 new members of staff. She was rejected and returned to Zuckerberg in November with a reduced proposal for 32 new hires. It's unclear what Zuckerberg decided.

Clegg wrote that the company was failing to meet goals to prevent bullying, harassment and other harmful activities on Instagram and Facebook and warned that global regulators could take action.

He said the investment in staff would allow the company to “support our external wellbeing narrative in our apps”.

Before the release of these documents, Zuckerberg's plans for the hearing included talking about the difficulties of being a parent in the digital age, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. He also planned to defend Meta by pointing out the dozens of tools the company had implemented over the past eight years to give parents more control.

Meta has about 40,000 people working on security issues in its apps, according to prepared testimony, and has invested more than $20 billion in those efforts since 2016. Nearly a quarter of that investment was spent in the past year. It is unclear how much of the $20 billion is dedicated to child safety.

A major line of questioning Wednesday is expected to focus on how apps verify users' ages, as the company bans users under 13.

At the hearing, Zuckerberg plans to suggest that Apple take responsibility for verifying ages through its App Store, according to his prepared remarks. He also plans to encourage legislation that would require teens to seek parental approval to download apps.

Zuckerberg has long positioned Meta (and the Internet in general) as a place for both good and evil. He has said that the job of his company is to elevate the good while doing everything possible to mitigate the damage. He also plans to emphasize how the Internet can be a positive place for people, including children, according to his prepared remarks.

“They use our apps to feel more connected, informed and entertained, as well as to express themselves, create things and explore their interests,” he plans to say according to his prepared remarks. “Overall, teens tell us this is a positive part of their lives.”

A correction was made in

January 31, 2024

:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a proposal to add 45 staff members at Meta. That's less than 1 percent of Meta's total employees, not 1 percent.

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