Senator Graham Spreads A Bunch Of Nonsense About 'Protecting Digital Innocence' Online

We warned last week that Senator Lindsey Graham was holding a “but think of the children online” moral panic hearing. Indeed, it happened. You can watch the whole 2 hours, but… I wouldn’t recommend it (I did it for you, though). Most of it is the usual moral panic, technologically illiterate nonsense we’ve all come to expect from Congress. Indeed, in a bit of good timing, the Pessimist’s Archive just tweeted out a clip of a 1993 Senate hearing in which then Senator Joe Lieberman flipped out about evil video games. Think about this, but two hours, and a wider array of nonsense:

1993: @JoeLieberman shows video of @MortalKombat at Senate hearing on videogame violence.

— Pessimists Archive Podcast (@PessimistsArc) July 9, 2019

It starts out with a prosecutor from South Carolina, Duffie Stone, moral panicking about basically everything. Encryption is evil. Children are being sex trafficked online. And, um, gangs are recruiting members with (gasp) music videos. Later he complains that some of those kids (gasp!) mock law enforcement in their videos. Something must be done! The second speaker, a law professor, Angela Campell, claims that we need more laws “for the children!” She also goes further and says that the FTC should go after Google and others for not magically stopping scammy companies from existing. Then there was this guy, Christopher McKenna, from an organization (“Protect Young Eyes!”) dedicated to moral panics, telling all sorts of unbelievable anecdotes about evil predators stalking young people on Instagram and “grooming” them. Remember, that actual data on this kind of activity shows that it’s actually quite rare (not zero, and that’s not excusing it when it does happen, but the speaker makes it sound like every young girl on Instagram is likely to be at risk of sex trafficking). He also asks the government to require an MPAA/ESRB-style “rating” system for apps — apparently unaware that laws attempting to require such ratings have been struck down as unconstitutional, and the MPAA/ESRB ratings only exist through voluntary agreements.

There’s also… um… this:

It’s the app where every kid, regardless of age, has access to the Discover News section, where they are taught how to engage in risky sexual behavior, such as hookup, group, anal, or torture sex, how to sell drugs, and how to hide internet activity from parents using “incognito mode.”

He’s describing Snapchat. I’ve used Snapchat for years and, uh, I’ve never come across any of that. Also, the complaint about incognito mode is… pretty messed up, considering how that’s a tool for protecting privacy. This is all straight from the standard moral panic playbook. Also, he claims that Twitter has “hardcore porn and prostitution was everywhere” — which is also news to me (and I use Twitter a lot). He also whines that VPNs are too easy to get — and then later whines that it’s “too hard” to protect our privacy. Um, hiding VPNs will harm our privacy. It’s like a hodge podge of true nonsense.

There was also John Clark from NCMEC — the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. NCMEC actually does good work in helping platforms screen out and spot child porn. However, Clark contributes to the scare-mongering about just how awful the internet is. He also flat out lies. At one point during the panel, Senator Ted Cruz asks Clark about FOSTA and what it’s done so far. Clark flat out lies and says that FOSTA took down Backpage. This is false. Backpage was taken down and its founders arrested before FOSTA was even signed into law.

The only semi-reasonable panelist was the last one, Stephen Balkam, from the Family Online Safety Institute. While McKenna mocks the idea that “parents have a role” by pointing out that parents can’t watch over their kids every hour of every day (duh), Balkam points out that what we should be doing is not watching over our kids all the time, but rather training them and educating them to know how to be good digital citizens online and to avoid trouble. But that kind of message was basically ignored by the Senators, because what fun is actually respecting our kids and teaching them how to be smart internet users. Instead, most of panel focuses on crazy anecdotes and salacious claims about internet services that make them sounds a hell of lot more insane than any of those platforms actually are.

Later, Senator John Kennedy asks the guy from “Protect Young Eyes” if Apple can build a filter that will magically help parents block kids from ever seeing sexually explicit material. McKenna stumbles and admits he has no idea, leading Balkam to finally have to jump into the conversation (he’s the only panelist that no Senator had called on throughout the entire ordeal) to point out that all platforms have some forms of parental controls. But Kennedy cuts him off and says “but can it be done?” Balkam stutters a “yes,” which is not accurate — since Kennedy is asking for something impossible. But then Kennedy suggests that Congress write a law that requires companies like Apple and Google to install filters (something that’s already been ruled unconstitutional).

Kennedy’s idea is… nutty. He includes the obligatory “I don’t know how any of this is done” comment before suggesting a bunch of impossible ideas.

Could Apple, for example, design a program that a parent could opt into, and the instructions to Apple would be “design a program that will filter all information that my daughter or son may see that would be sexually exploitative”? Maybe “filter all pictures or written references to human genitalia.” Can that be done? … Isn’t that the short way home here?


So could we write legislation, or promulgate a rule, that says “here’s the thing that a reasonable parent would do to protect his or her child from seeing this stuff.” And we do that in conjunction with somebody that has the obvious expertise. And you filter everything. I don’t know how to do it. I can’t write software. Maybe it’s to prevent any pictures of human genitalia. Or prohibit any reference to sexual activity. I don’t know. The kids aren’t gonna like it, but that’s not who we’re trying to please here. Why couldn’t that be done?

Well, the Constitution is why it can’t be done Senator. Also, basic understanding of technology. Or the limits on filter technology. Block all mention of sexual activity? Sure, then kids will use slang. Good luck keeping up with that. Block all pictures of genitalia — then say good buy to biology texts online. Or pages about breast cancer. This is all stuff that lots of people have studied for decades and Kennedy is displaying his ignorance about the Constitution, the law, the internet, the technology, and just about everything else as well. Including kids.

Balkam points out that there are lots of private companies already making such filters, but Kennedy keeps saying “can we write a law” and “can we require every device have these filters” and Balkam looks panic’d noting he has no idea about whether or not they can write such a law (answer: they cannot, at least not if they want it to pass Constitutional muster).

Senator Blackburn… brings up Jeffrey Epstein. Who, as far as we know… didn’t use the internet to prey on girls. But according to Blackburn, Epstein proves the problems of the internet. Because. Senator Hawley then completely makes up a claim that YouTube is deliberately pushing kids to pedophiles and refuses to do anything about it. He claims — incorrectly — that Google admitted that it knows it sends videos of kids to pedophiles (and, he claims, allows the pedophiles to contact the kids) and that it deliberately has decided not to stop this. This misrepresents… basically everything once again.

Senator Thom Tillis then grandstands that it’s all the parents’ fault — and if a kid gets a mobile phone and lies about his age, we should be… blaming the parents for “giving the kids a lethal device.” No hyperbole and grandstanding there, huh? He’s also really focused on “lethality.” He later claims that the internet content itself is “lethal.”

Towards the end, the Senators all gang up on Section 230. Senator Cruz asks his FOSTA question (leading NCMEC’s Clark to falsely state that it was necessary to take down Backpage), and then Blumenthal calls 230 “the elephant in the room” and suggests that there needs to be a “duty of care” to get companies to do anything. It seems like Hawley is already gone by this time, but no one seems to point out that any such duty of care would likely lead to much greater censorship on these platforms, in direct contrast with his demand that the companies censor less.

Nevertheless, Senator Graham closes the hearing by saying that he thinks the companies need to “earn” their CDA 230 protections (which is part of Hawley’s nonsense bill). Graham suggests that Congress needs to come up with “best business practices” and platforms should only get 230 protections if they “meet those best business practices.”

Who knew the Republican Party was all about dictating business standards. What happened to the party of getting government out of business?

Who knows what will actually come out of this hearing, but it was mostly a bunch of ill-informed or mis-informed, technologically illiterate grandstanding, moral panic nonsense. In other words, standard operating procedure for most of Congress.
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