richard blumenthal
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal following a press conference on Nov. 6, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal is hoping that his bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act will get a boost from whistleblower testimony this week detailing allegations that Meta ignored warnings of the harm to teens posed by its social media platforms Facebook and Instagram.

On Tuesday, the Blumenthal-chaired Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law will hear from Arturo Bejar, a Facebook former director of engineering who later served as a consultant to the company. 

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported Bejar’s efforts to alert CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives to the dangers of bullying and sexual exploitation faced by minors using the apps.

“Arturo Bejar will tell how he warned the top leadership of Facebook — now Meta — that enormous percentages of kids on Facebook were receiving unwanted sexual advances, material on eating disorders and bullying,” Blumenthal said during a Monday morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building. 

“He was disregarded and ignored,” Blumenthal said. “In fact, Facebook continued to present misleading data to the public and to the United States Congress.”

Bejar’s disclosures to the Wall Street Journal and his expected testimony before the Senate subcommittee come amid bipartisan interest in holding Meta accountable for allegedly failing to act in the face of evidence that its apps were harmful to young people.

In late October, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong joined Democratic and Republican attorneys general from across the country in a federal lawsuit arguing the social media giant intentionally employed harmful features designed to addict youths to its platforms. 

Meanwhile, Blumenthal has teamed up with Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn to push the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill that would create a legal obligation for social media sites likely to be used by young people to act in the interest of minors by mitigating the impact of content related to things like suicidal behaviors, substance use, sexual exploitation and eating disorders.

The bill, which would also give parents and minors the ability to opt out of certain social media features and practices, advanced out of the Senate’s Commerce Committee on a unanimous vote back in July. 

On Monday, Blumenthal said he expected that Bejar’s testimony to help build enough support for the bill that it would receive a floor vote in the Senate. 

“This whistleblower bombshell testimony ought to provide the momentum we need to get the Kids Online Safety Act across the finish line in the United States Senate,” Blumenthal said. “It shows that Facebook and Meta disregard the kind of warnings they received from this whistleblower and cannot be trusted to do kids’ safety on their own.”

This year marks proponents’ second attempt to pass KOSA. The legislation has been met with some concerns based on censorship and worries that the policy could be used to limit access to online support for young people including those within the LGBTQ communities. 

Blumenthal said Monday that the bill has nearly 50 bipartisan supporters and characterized its biggest obstacles as general disarray in Congress as well as lobbying from Big Tech companies. 

“The main stumbling block quite bluntly is the dysfunction in the Congress, particularly on the House side, as well as the need to do appropriations and avoid a government shutdown — the drum beat of one crisis after another but we’ve made a lot of progress,” Blumenthal said. 

Meta issued a response statement following Tuesday’s Senate hearing.

“Every day countless people inside and outside of Meta are working on how to help keep young people safe online,” the spokesperson said. “The issues raised here regarding user perception surveys highlight one part of this effort, and surveys like these have led us to create features like anonymous notifications of potentially hurtful content and comment warnings. Working with parents and experts, we have also introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families in having safe, positive experiences online. All of this work continues.”