At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on children’s online safety on Tuesday, senators attempted to breathe new life into past legislative proposals and highlight bipartisan momentum to take new action on issues ranging from social media’s impact on mental health to child sexual abuse material (CSAM), cyberbullying, human trafficking and illicit drug sales.
The nearly three hour hearing featured witnesses from civil society groups, academia and activists focused on these issues. Senators on both sides of the aisle reiterated calls for Section 230 reform that would remove liability protections for harmful user content, particularly CSAM, and discussed the challenge of monitoring end-to-end encrypted messaging tools. The EARN IT Act, legislation designed to address the online sexual exploitation of children that was reintroduced last year, more than a dozen mentions.
An alternative path forward also came to the fore with discussion of the potential for safety by design legislation, such as the Kids Online Safety Act, and proposals to address gaps in federal law for reporting and taking action on non-consensual intimate imagery (NCII) and CSAM.
“We have to give kids and parents — yes both kids and parents — the tools, transparency and guardrails they need to take back control over their own lives,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “That is why we must and we will double down on the Kids Online Safety Act.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) used the occasion to release a draft bill, the STOP CSAM Act, that he says would make reporting CSAM easier for victims and nonprofit youth safety organizations.
Otherwise, senators found unanimous support for legislative proposals such as the EARN IT Act from the invited witnesses; no critical voices from industry or civil rights organizations were in the room to voice concerns over implications for privacy and security. Many civil liberties organizations oppose the EARN IT Act over such concerns, including potential implications for encrypted messaging applications.
Potential reform to Section 230 dominated the hearing, but content-focused policy proposals face thorny challenges, such as potential politicization and First Amendment concerns.