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Hearing Recap: Missing Children Edition

Today’s Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee hearing, led by Chairman Aaron Bean (R-FL), covered national efforts to prevent the abduction and exploitation of children. 
Chairman Bean opened the hearing by expressing his support for The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), the national clearinghouse and resource center protecting missing and exploited children. He also touted his bill  the Missing Children's Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2023, which reauthorizes the 1984 law that created NCMEC. Specifically, H.R. 5224 enhances NCMEC’s coordination with law enforcement and state child welfare systems, promotes safety for children using technology, and combats the online exploitation of children.

“By supporting NCMEC, we contribute to the safety and well-being of all children, ensuring they can grow up in an environment where they are protected, nurtured, and allowed to flourish,” said Chair Bean.

The lone witness before the Committee was Michelle DeLaune, President and CEO of NCMEC. She used her opening statement to emphasize the critical, collaborative partnerships NCMEC has forged with the private sector and law enforcement.

“Today, NCMEC operates as a public-private partnership with over 450 employees, working to help find missing children, stop child exploitation, and prevent child victimization,” added Ms. DeLaune.

Ms. DeLaune then addressed the many worrisome trends that have emerged in the nearly 40 years since NCMEC’s inception. These trends include an increase in children missing from foster care, child sex trafficking, and instances of children abused or exploited online.

A number of Members also raised concerns about the role of technology in child exploitation and the growing threat of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Turning to questions, Chairman Bean asked, “On a scale from 1-10 … How concerned are you about AI?”

Ms. DeLaune responded, “An 11.”

That stark testimony and the general uncertainty associated with AI loomed large over the hearing. Following up, Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) asked how the Committee could help.

Big Tech received continued criticism throughout the hearing. Rep. Kevin Kiley (R-CA) raised the question: “What are the legal responsibilities that platforms—social media platforms or otherwise—currently have to monitor for this kind of explicit content and to remove it?”

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about sextortion or enticement. There is no legal obligation for any tech company if they become aware of that to report that,” replied Ms. DeLaune. It served as a sobering reminder for the Committee that many of Big Tech’s obligations to society are merely moral—not enshrined in the law.

In recent years, deepfakes have become yet another threat posed by technological advancement. Rep. Nathaniel Moran (R-TX) asked, “How are online platforms and law enforcement agencies responding to this emerging threat?”

“We are seeing weekly reports coming in regarding deepfakes where teenagers may be creating pornographic images of their classmates, putting them out online, or sharing them amongst friends or within a school,” replied Ms. DeLaune 
As for the law enforcement response, Ms. DeLaune admitted, “Law enforcement is struggling.”

This is a terrifying problem that has been exponentially exacerbated by lower cost and greater access to deepfake technology provided by AI, and, therefore, communities must be informed and aware. That’s one important area where NCMEC is helping by providing preventative, educational programs to children and parents.

Chair Bean punctuated the hearing with a fitting quote often attributed to 18th century British conservative Edmund Burke: “For evil to succeed is for good men and women to do nothing.”

Widespread child exploitation is a unique evil exacerbated by the technology of our time, but good men and women like those at NCMEC are working hard to combat it.

Bottom Line: The Committee is working to provide NCMEC with the tools to achieve its mission to ensure that every child has a safe childhood. 
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