The Brave Movement reactive statement to: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the online child sexual exploitation crisis

The Brave Movement reactive statement to: Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the online child sexual exploitation crisis

On January 31st 2024 the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing titled “Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis”. For millions of children and adolescents, and parents and caregivers, in the United States and around the world, the rapid rise in online sexual abuse and exploitation is a crisis, a hidden pandemic.  The CEOs of Meta, Discord, TikTok, Snapchat and X (formerly Twitter) were called on to testify and answer questions regarding  their companies’ lack of action to protect children on their platforms. Senators convened the hearing to build support for a suite of bills intended to expand protections for children online, including a measure that would allow victims of child sexual abuse to sue platforms that enable exploitation. The CEO’s were met with an overflowing room of parents holding pictures of children who have been victims to abuse and exploitations on their platforms.

It is estimated that one in six people are victims of online child sexual abuse before the age of 18 years old. This is an area of childhood sexual violence which has been rising at an alarmingly exponential rate over the last few years. In fact, reports of child sexual abuse material on online platforms grew from 32 million in 2022 to a record high of more than 36 million in 2023. These numbers do not even portray the true scale with a lack of reporting and identification resulting in numbers widely regarded to be millions less than the reality.

Survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual violence were in attendance at the hearing, to raise awareness of the scale and impact of the issue, share their perspectives and call for the leaders of these technology giants to prioritize child protection. As noted by a survivor leader, Tom Krumins, who was representing the Brave Movement at the hearing: “It is critical that survivors have a voice and a say in this conversation. True youth protection depends on the survivor perspective. Those of us who slipped through the gaps must be able to highlight our experiences and help inform the necessary changes so sexual violence does not continue to happen to millions of children and adolescents.”

The Brave Movement, a special initiative of Together for Girls, is a survivor-led advocacy movement working to end childhood sexual violence.  An integral part of our mission involves supporting survivor leaders advocating to end child sexual exploitation and abuse online and holding tech companies accountable. The Brave Movement is also part of The End Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Children (OSEAC) Coalition who convened survivors from across the country to inform the questions for the CEOs, attend the hearing, and run an online day of action for online safety on day after the hearing.

There is an increasing belief that the technology is available to protect children on these platforms and that the problem lies with leaders choosing not to take necessary actions. Mr. Zuckerberg (Meta), Ms. Yaccarino (X), Mr. Chew (TikTok), Mr. Spiegel (Snapchat), and Mr. Citron (Discord) were questioned about their respective companies’ efforts, and stances on a suite of bills that have been developed to protect children. The well rehearsed CEO’s did little to show they are posed to take action at the level needed to address the crisis. Time after time all the CEO’s refused to say they would support bills that have been developed by the committee, while at the same time using their opening statements to note the importance of legislation to end online sexual exploitation.

The ‘all talk and no action’ theme was called out at one point by an understandably emotive, and visibly frustrated, Senator Lindsey Graham who noted “This senate is done with talking. We have passed five bills…if we wait for all of you to act we will die trying!

There were some exceptions, and notes of progress, notably X publicly noting they will support the STOP CSAM ACT, the first of the technology giants to do so. On the product safety side all the CEO’s noted measures they are taking, and investments they are making, and a commitment to continued dialogue on legislation. But the solutions offered up were at a micro level, whereas the crisis it at a macro, endemic level.

The committee spoke to the safety of users and how no other products impact the safety of those using it, without mass scale action. Such as a fleet of airplanes being grounded if a glitch is found in just one of thousands of that type of airplane. Where is the similar scale action for online safety? Nowhere to be seen.

Senators noted that legislation is behind and has not developed at the rate and scale that technology has over the last twenty years. This time lag between the products, platforms and the regulations and policies needed is clear, and the continued political leadership shown at the hearing will be essential for any significant change. But unfortunately, upsettingly, and heartbreakingly for the parents and survivors in the room there was no hint that the scale of action that is needed to make the internet safe for children, and prevent online sexual exploitation and abuse, is going to be shown by the technology giant leaders any time soon.

As Tom Krumins from the Brave Movement noted “The time is now for these leaders to be bold, to be brave! What we saw today was simply not enough. At the Brave Movement, we will continue to call on technology companies to take urgent steps to prioritize child safety on their platforms, and we will continue to call on the government to play their part in regulating and holding these companies to account.”