It’s been 15 years since suicides overtook homicides as the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 years old. Two years since the first Meta whistleblower warned United States senators that America’s children are at risk from “disastrous” decisions being made in Silicon Valley. (And a little over a month since a second Meta whistleblower testified, “They knew and they were not acting on it.”) And it’s been roughly one year since a wave of new, younger lawmakers—many raising their own young children—were seated in the House of Representatives. “As a mom of two kids, you know, we want to make sure that their online experience is safe,” Representative Beth Van Duyne, a Texas Republican, tells WIRED.
All those changes—including an alarming doubling of the adolescent suicide rate—and yet, one constant remains: congressional inaction. Amid a flurry of blockbuster whistleblower hearings, soaring campaign promises, tear-soaked press conferences with the families of teens lost to cyberbullying, and dozens of competing bills that members have introduced aimed at protecting kids in cyberspace—nothing.
Congressional inaction has left the door open for the Biden administration to lead on the issue. On Wednesday, the Federal Trade Commission unveiled its proposal for a new set of guidelines to govern social media firms. The FTC wants to prohibit social media companies from identifying children—like targeting their cell numbers—when they’re online, while also limiting which data is collected on students, including having apps not target children under 13 with ads by default. With House Republicans now taking steps to impeach Joe Biden, why would they want to cede their oversight authority over American tech firms to the White House? Most don’t.
With so much interest—and increased pressure from agencies like the FTC—why hasn’t Congress protected kids yet? “I’ve never been able to figure that out either,” Representative Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction on the issue, tells WIRED. Of course, there are theories floating around the marble halls of the US Capitol.
Teams of tech lobbyists on Capitol Hill have dropped upward of $75 million (not including Q4 totals, which aren’t due until January 22) in 2023. Of the 637 “internet” lobbyists, as money and politics nonprofit Open Secrets dubs the sector, a whopping 73.31 percent are former government employees. Many of these lobbyists are from the same congressional offices and committees now tasked with regulating the internet. They’re not very subtle.
One social media firm or another seems to always be blanketing Washington with a feel-good, policy-focused ad campaign. At the start of the year, TikTok—which, at $3.7 million, spent more in Q3 lobbying this year than it did throughout all of 2019 and 2020 combined—plastered DC’s metro system, historic Union Station, and The Washington Post with ads. When its CEO was dragged in to testify to an angry Congress this spring, it even paid for travel, room, and board for dozens of sympathetic “influencers.” For the past month or so, Meta ads have blanketed the Beltway: “Instagram supports federal legislation that puts parents in charge of teen app downloads,” the ad reads, without saying which measures it’s actively trying to kill on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers say the ad blitz shows what they’re up against from technology firms. “M–O–N–E–Y,” Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, spells out to WIRED. “They’re only in favor of stuff if they can write it.”