When it comes to child safety, most of my work revolves around two areas of law: Defective products and sexual abuse of minors – whether in a school setting or a clergy setting. Plaintiffs’ injury lawyers sounded the alarm on such issues a long time ago. I’m proud to say that before plaintiffs’ lawyers did so, untold number of children were seriously injured or killed as a result of these defective products, and untold numbers of minor children were the victims of unspeakable sexual abuse by clergy members and school teachers.
Now, the focus is on internet child safety – specifically, the blind eye that Big Tech has paid to protecting underage children from sexual exploitation – and mental health harm, on the internet. Earlier this week, a hearing was held on Capitol Hill on the issue of child safety and the internet. The information revealed in that hearing was extremely disturbing.
A U.S. Senate hearing was called to air the justifiable worries of parents and experts in mental health that social media companies prioritize profits over safety measures that would better protect children in the use of these social media platforms. At one point, Senator Lindsey Graham (R – South Carolina), told Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta (which owns Facebook), “Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us, I know you don’t mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands. You have a product that’s killing people.” Aside from Facebook, Meta owns Instagram, WhatsApp and Threads, in addition to other similar online platforms.
Zuckerberg testified at the hearing along with X CEO Linda Yaccarino, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew and Discord CEO Jason Citron. The hearing cited statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that demonstrated exploding growth in online child exploitation, including “sextortion,” a scheme in which an online predator cons a minor into sending sexually explicit photos and videos. The predator then extorts money by threatening to publish the material. At the hearing, scores of parents displayed photos of their children who they said were victims of such scams, targeted at children. A video was played with a young child whose identity was hidden, who testified, “I was sexually exploited on Facebook.” In the hearing room, dozens of parents held pictures of their children who they said had been harmed due to social media. Zuckerberg was challenged by one senator to apologize to parents attending the hearing. At one point, Zuckerberg turned around to address the parents. He was jeered by many.
There’s a good reason for this. It wasn’t just because Zuckerberg pointedly did not take responsibility for this abuse. It’s because of internal Meta emails that were released showing that Zuckerberg rejected a request by top policy executives at Meta to hire upwards of 84 engineers to work on safety improvements.
X’s Yaccarino claimed that X supports the STOP CSAM Act, which is federal legislation that would allow victims of such online predation to sue and hold tech companies civilly liable for child sexual abuse material. While that sounds noble, as a Massachusetts defective products lawyer, I can assure you it’s far more likely to be window dressing: Several bills have been introduced to address online child safety. Not one has become law. 170 million Americans use TikTok monthly.
This is a travesty that has to stop now. The best way? Allow parents and victims on online child sex trafficking and child porn and ‘sextortion’, to sue these companies civilly. Hold them responsible under product liability law. Given the fact these companies wield billions of dollars and buy Congress one member at a time, unfortunately I’m not holding my breath.