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Leash tightens about the necks of social media titans in the US

Leash tightens about the necks of social media titans in the US
 

Nothing of substance resulted from yesterday’s U.S. Senate scolding of five social media CEOs. Intangible but important was the obvious fact that the industry’s political muscle continues to wither.

Judiciary Committee members, conservatives and liberals alike, say they are ready (this time) to regulate social media with age verification or biometric age estimation to prevent children from being bullied, harassed and sexually exploited. Affected children (and no small number of vulnerable adults) have harmed themselves to the point of suicide.

The January 31 hearing pulled in the leaders of Meta, X, TikTok, Discord and Snap. Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg expressed hope for legislation that imposes “a clear system for age verification.”

A memorable moment in the proceedings came when conservative South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham haltingly told the executives that they and their peers have “blood on your hands” because of their practices.

But the salient point was captured in a New York Times photo of Zuckerberg addressing the gallery. Several people held photos, presumably of loved ones who’ve harmed themselves after getting too wrapped up in their social media accounts. (They were not all children.)

It showed that the industry is surrounded.

Regardless of the millions that the companies have to ladle into senators’ election war chests, they fulminated at the CEOs and created a situation in which one of them felt compelled to stand and apologize for creating unsafe online conditions for children – apologizing not to the politicians but to the audience.

Senators love the cameras focused on them and they’re snooty about decorum, and yet the room’s dynamics had been turned inside out.

It was allowed to happen because the committee needed to show Zuckerberg humiliated. Chastened Big Tech and social media, in particular, makes regulating them much easier.

In the background of the hearing is legislation, the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill considered by many on all sides to be a sop.

So, how does this leave the biometrics verification and authentication industry? Essentially unchanged.

The senators wanted to be seen angry when what is needed are negotiations for standards on a short time leash. Some of the witnesses mentioned age and identity verification, but the politicians weren’t having it.

The industry has its moments, but it hasn’t backed even a core approach to making the internet simultaneously safe for kids and respectful of adult civil liberties, though the industry support for age estimation has coalesced. If nothing progresses, it’s more regulation and illicit programming to get around age walls for social media.

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