YouTube, Snap and TikTok executives take their turn answering to Washington

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Tuesday grilled executives from YouTube, Snap and TikTok about mounting concerns that their platforms can harm children and teenagers.

Lawmakers expressed concerns that the companies’ software steered young people toward inappropriate posts, mishandled consumer data and did not do enough to spot dangerous content on their platforms.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., opened the hearing by accusing the companies of drawing young people further and further into their products.

“Everything that you do is to add users, especially kids, and keep them on your apps for longer,” said Blumenthal, who leads the subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee holding the hearing.

The companies sent executives with political experience to answer the questions. TikTok was represented by Michael Beckerman, its head of public policy for the Americas who used to lead a top lobbying group for internet companies. Leslie Miller, YouTube’s vice president for government affairs and public policy and a former Democratic political aide, was appearing on behalf of the streaming site. Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, sent Jennifer Stout, its vice president for global public policy and John Kerry’s former deputy chief of staff.

Two weeks ago, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager who leaked thousands of pages of internal documents, told the committee how the company knew that its products made teenagers feel worse about themselves. The decision to invite executives from other companies reflects how the lawmakers’ concerns go beyond Facebook and its photo app, Instagram, to include other major platforms across the web.

The companies quickly tried to distance themselves from each other, while arguing they were already taking significant steps to protect child users.

Stout said that Snapchat was an “antidote to social media” and stressed the differences between Snapchat and Instagram. She said that her company’s app focused on connecting people who already knew each other in real life, rather than feeding them a constant stream of content from strangers. And she said it focused on privacy, making images and messages delete by default.

She also stressed that Snapchat moderates the public content it promotes more heavily than other social media companies. Human moderators review content from publishers before promoting it in Discover, the public section of Snapchat that contains news and entertainment, Stout said. Content on Spotlight, Snap’s creator program that promotes videos from its users, is reviewed by artificial intelligence before being distributed, and reviewed by human moderators before it can be watched by more than 25 users, Stout added.

“We believe that regulation is necessary but given the speed at which technology develops and the rate at which regulation can be implemented, regulation alone can’t get the job done,” Stout said.

Beckerman said that TikTok was different from other platforms that focus more on direct communication between users. “It’s about uplifting, entertaining content,” he said. “People love it.”

Lawmakers resisted efforts by the executives to paint their employers as the exception to concerns about children’s safety online.

“I understand from your testimony that your defense is: We’re not Facebook,” Blumenthal said. “Being different from Facebook is not a defense. That bar is in the gutter.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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