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Congress is taking on YouTube’s pedophilia problem

At least one lawmaker has proposed a bill to ban content with children

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Three senators are calling for YouTube to take more direct action in protecting children against predatory behavior on the platform in the wake of a recent New York Times story, which investigated sexually predatory views and comments on children’s videos posted to YouTube.

Sens. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) have each taken a step in addressing YouTube’s child safety issue. Hawley announced yesterday that he would be introducing a bill that would make it unlawful for video-hosting platforms like YouTube to recommend videos that feature minors. Recommendation systems are under particular scrutiny after the Times report, which showed YouTube’s recommendation algorithm suggesting videos of younger and younger women and girls if a user starts off watching erotic videos.

“Every parent in America should be appalled that YouTube is pushing videos of their children to pedophiles,” Hawley said. “It’s equally outrageous that YouTube refuses to take the most effective step necessary to fix the issue.”

Under Hawley’s bill, the same content would appear in the search results, but platforms could not include them in recommendation bars. There are a few exceptions, however. For example, clips from shows like America’s Got Talent being recommended wouldn’t result in the companies being fined. The bill is primarily targeting home videos.

Blumenthal and Blackburn have not endorsed Hawley’s legislation, but they wrote to YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki on the same day asking for the company to take similar actions.

“The sexualization of children through YouTube’s recommendation engine represents the development of a dangerous new kind of illicit content meant to avoid law enforcement detection. Action is overdue,” Blumenthal and Blackburn’s letter reads. “YouTube must act forceful and swiftly to end this disturbing risk to children and society.”

YouTube has been battered by controversy in recent months over children being exploited on the platform. Predatory comments on videos starring children have been an issue for years, but reports from earlier this year noted that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm was feeding predators a constant stream of content starring minors. The news resulted in dozens of advertisers from Nestle to Fortnite developer Epic Games pulling their advertising dollars from the platform until the issue was solved.

The company has tried multiple tactics throughout the years to fight disturbing, exploitive, and predatory behavior targeting kids. Most recently, YouTube disabled the comments underneath videos picturing children. A YouTube spokesperson told The Verge that YouTube has a strong record of successfully fighting child sexual exploitation on the platform, and pointed to a recent blog post addressing further steps YouTube was taking.

Update June 7th, 12:40PM ET: The story has been updated to include comments from YouTube.