Portman Warns Against Exploitation of Children & China’s Malign Influence on Social Media Platforms

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, delivered opening remarks at the second panel of a Committee hearing examining social media’s impact on homeland security.

Portman voiced concern over the failure of social media companies to prevent child sexual abuse material on their platforms. Portman has been a leader in combatting the exploitation of children, most recently with his Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which was signed into law in 2018, and reformed Section 230 by removing barriers to both criminal prosecution and civil suits against websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking. Portman expressed his concern for Meta’s policy for moderating child sexual abuse material, noting that the policy results in underreporting to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and to law enforcement.

Portman also expressed concern with China’s malign activities and influence over TikTok. China has a pattern of economic and cyber espionage, and Portman acknowledged the worrisome reality of TikTok’s legal obligation to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to U.S. user data, as required by Chinese national security law.

A transcript of his opening remarks at the second panel can be found below and a video can be found here.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We had a very productive hearing this morning with experts on the impact of social media on homeland security and I look forward to our discussion this afternoon. And I want to thank the representatives here from Meta, and Youtube, and TikTok, and Twitter. Thank you all for being here, and in anticipation of another good hearing, I appreciate your being very frank with us today and providing us with the information we need to be able to move forward.

“About 300 million Americans now use social media. We know that social media has offered unprecedented connectivity, and that’s often very positive, but we also know it has raised serious concerns for our children, our civic culture, and our national security. 

“Terrorists and violent extremists, drug cartels, criminals, authoritarian regimes, and other dangerous forces have used social media in furtherance of their goals, they’ve exploited your platforms. Perhaps the most concerning consequence of social media is the ability for our adversaries to exploit platforms to harm Americans for their own geopolitical gain. As an example in this second panel, I hope we’ll discuss China’s influence over TikTok, which is a social media app that at least one-third of Americans use, and a lot of young people.

“As the lead Republican and former Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I have been focused on China’s malign activities for many years. In 2019, I led a year-long bipartisan investigation which found that China recruits U.S.-based researchers to steal taxpayer-funded intellectual property and research for its own military and economic gain. Following this report, I introduced bipartisan legislation, the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, which seeks to stop U.S. taxpayer-funded research and IP from falling into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party or CCP. Two months ago, I issued a new report detailing China’s efforts to target, influence, and undermine the U.S. Federal Reserve. China has a pattern of economic and cyber espionage, and social media for them is just another opportunity. I am highly concerned about TikTok and how China may be leveraging their influence to access the platform’s data on Americans.

“Chinese law requires all companies operating under its jurisdiction to, in essence, allow the Chinese Communist Party to access every piece of data collected. Any company that refuses to comply with the CCP’s demand is subject to severe consequences, as are individuals. Therefore, since both TikTok and its parent company ByteDance, have a presence in mainland China, an expert witness this morning told us that TikTok’s user data could be accessed by the Chinese Communist Party. We want to talk more about that today.

“This means that the CCP may have access to one hundred million Americans’ personal and proprietary information. As U.S. government has warned, China’s access to user data will allow it to extend its malign agenda and build dossiers on American citizens. The overwhelming popularity of this app with America’s youth will allow China to collect never-before-accessed troves of data on our children—the future generations of Americans. 

“But the challenges that social media poses to our children are not limited to TikTok. We continue to see the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online. I have been at the forefront of this for years. I’m proud that my Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act was signed into law in 2018. This was the first bill to reform Section 230 by removing barriers to both criminal prosecution and civil suits against websites that knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking. Because of this change in law, courts are beginning to affirm that Section 230 cannot shield internet companies when they fail to respond to images of child exploitation and continue to profit from exploitation on their platforms. A specific case against Twitter is now being considered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for example, and will show if the law needs to be expanded in order to properly protect children. 

“But it’s not just Twitter, the fight continues on other platforms that are used to exploit children. Meta announced earlier this year that they would not report all explicit images of children and would instead ‘err on the side of an adult’ when moderating explicit images of could-be children. In other words, when the age of an individual in a sexual image is uncertain, content moderators are told to put their thumbs on the scales of that individual being an adult. To me, this is shocking. Let’s be clear what we are talking about, this is child sexual abuse material, images of a minor’s rape, exploitation. Somehow, at least what we’ve been told, is that Meta has decided that these should not be referred to law enforcement. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has made it clear that images must be reported if they appear to involve a child so that law enforcement can intervene and stop the abuse and prosecute perpetrators.

“I worked with colleagues across the aisle to draft this legislation, SESTA, and we crafted it narrowly so that it would be focused ending trafficking and exploitation online. But it may in fact be too narrow if companies continue to turn away from keeping the exploitation of children off of their platforms. I hope my colleagues will take up the challenge of revisiting SESTA and tightening the standard so that entities showing a reckless disregard for the sexual exploitation of children are held accountable. I am ready to be an ally in this fight even after I leave the Senate this term.

“I look forward to discussing these matters, especially regarding how product development processes appear to be at odds with user safety, as well as the need for more detailed transparency from the companies. And again I look forward to the testimony. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”