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Big snub! Now it is YouTube, TikTok, Snap vs Facebook

Jennifer Stout, VP at Snap Inc., testifies during a Senate panel hearing. Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube have come under scrutiny after a whistleblower exposed Facebook.
Jennifer Stout, VP at Snap Inc., testifies during a Senate panel hearing. Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube have come under scrutiny after a whistleblower exposed Facebook. (AFP)

Social media companies YouTube, TikTok and Snap sought to distance themselves from Facebook after backlash.

Social media companies YouTube, TikTok and Snap sought to distance themselves before lawmakers Tuesday from the backlash facing rival Facebook Inc., emphasizing they have established privacy protections for kids and teens on their platforms.

The executives appeared at a Senate committee hearing a day after a consortium of 17 news outlets, including Bloomberg, published dozens of articles based on troves of leaked Facebook data that detailed how the company prioritized profits over the safety of users -- particularly teenagers -- on its products.

The Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel, led by Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, are examining efforts by Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube, ByteDance Ltd’s TikTok and Snap Inc. to protect the privacy of children and teenagers online. 

“Being different from Facebook is not a defense,” Blumenthal said in his opening remarks. “What we want is not a race to the bottom, but really a race to the top.”

Blumenthal said tech companies should not be relying on parents to protect their children’s privacy on their platforms, the features need to be built in.

“I want a market where the competition is to protect children,” he said.

Blackburn raised concerns about data collected by TikTok and whether it’s shared with the Chinese government, where parent company ByteDance is based. She said that despite vague assurances, TikTok “has not alleviated my concerns in the slightest.” 

TikTok said it stores its data outside of China, including in Singapore and the U.S. “We do not share information with the Chinese government,” Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s vice president and head of public policy for the Americas, said at the hearing.

The witnesses also included Jennifer Stout, Snap’s president of global public policy and Leslie Miller, YouTube’s vice president of government affairs and public policy.

Emphasis on Safety

Blumenthal and Blackburn’s subcommittee previously heard from Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen, the former product manager who leaked documents to the committee and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Haugen highlighted how Facebook’s engagement-based algorithms lead harmful content to become viral on the platform. She said these algorithms particularly affect teenage girls who already have negative views of their bodies.

The three social media companies sought to set themselves apart from Facebook in their approach to online safety, as TikTok and Snap make their first appearance before Congress.

Last week, Blumenthal separately invited Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before the subcommittee in a future hearing.

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Snap emphasized that one of it’s strongest privacy protections is that it only allows users ages 13 and up, and has no plans to market to kids under 13. The registration process fails for individuals under the age of 13 that attempt to sign up.

“We make no effort — and have no plans — to market to children,” Stout told the committee.

Stout said that regulation alone won’t solve the challenges surrounding privacy online. “Technology companies must take responsibility and actively protect the communities they serve,” she said.

TikTok highlighted specific actions it’s taken to protect children’s safety in recent years, including disabling the direct messaging feature for users under age 16. The company also disabled all users from sending certain videos, photos and website links, and only videos that have been approved through content moderation are allowed.

TikTok has also removed 11 million suspected underage accounts from April to June 2021. But the company acknowledged the challenges it faces.

“We do know trust must be earned, and we’re seeking to earn trust through a higher level of action, transparency and accountability, as well as the humility to learn and improve” Beckerman said.

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YouTube’s Miller told the panel that YouTube Kids, created in 2015, provides parents with tools to control and customize the app for children. Miller said that kids under 13 who aren’t in a parental “supervised experience” are not allowed on YouTube. They don’t allow personalized advertisements on YouTube Kids or the “supervise experience.”

Miller said the company has removed nearly 1.8 million videos from April to June 2021 for violations of the company’s child safety policies.

Efforts to Legislate

Blumenthal and Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey have sponsored legislation to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which was enacted in 1998, years before the launch of the social media companies. The law currently restricts collection of personal information of children under age 13. The legislation would expand the protections to age 16. The bill has bipartisan support from Republican Senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. 

Blumenthal also backed legislation to prohibit certain manipulative marketing practices geared toward online users under the age of 16, including banning auto-play features and algorithms that amplify violent and dangerous content. That bill has no Republican cosponsors to date.

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