This week lawmakers and regulators gave new impetus to strengthen privacy and safety protections for children online, introducing a flurry of bills and enforcement proposals with varying degrees of support from their peers, civil liberties groups and tech trade associations. The burst of action comes on the heels of an ongoing youth mental health crisis that seemingly all stakeholders want to resolve, but many fear these proposals could create new problems for children and members of marginalized communities online.
The largely bipartisan bills were filed in quick succession. Last Wednesday, a group of senators introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which would create a nationwide pilot age-verification program and ban children under 13 from social media. On Tuesday, the Kids Online Privacy Act resurfaced in the Senate. The next day, Senator Ed Markey reintroduced “COPPA 2.0,” which would raise the age of protection under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act from 13 to 16. And yesterday, the controversial EARN IT Act came out of committee for the second time.
While the conversation about protecting children online dates back to the 1990s, discussions to update current legislation only gained new momentum a few years ago. In October 2021, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked a wealth of documents from the company detailing how its products harm the mental health of children and teens. As a result, Congress held hearings to bring in Facebook executives and introduced new bills to restrict how platforms handle their young users’ data. Other lawmakers have targeted a spate of online child sexual abuse material, blaming Tech Shield Law Section 230 for its proliferation.
The two measures with the most momentum – and the most pushback – are KOSA and the EARN IT Act. KOSA must prevent children from seeing harmful content by implementing a new legal standard that will make it easier for the Federal Trade Commission and Attorneys General to sue if they don’t proactively remove the content. KOSA’s co-sponsors, Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), say the bill would prevent children from seeing harmful material, such as posts glorifying eating disorders, suicidal ideation, substance abuse or gambling.
“Record Levels of Hopelessness and Despair – A National Teenage Crisis”
“Record levels of hopelessness and despair — a national crisis in teen mental health — have been fueled by black box algorithms involving eating disorders, bullying, suicidal thoughts and more,” Blumenthal said in a statement reintroducing the bill Tuesday. “Children and parents want to take back control of their online lives.”
Separately, the EARN IT bill, championed by Blumenthal and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), seeks to curb the proliferation of child sexual abuse material online by making a platform’s Section 230 protection contingent on its proactive removal of the illegal content.
Despite the admirable goals of the measures, both KOSA and EARN IT have sparked fears among civil rights groups and pro-tech lobby groups about their potential to limit free speech, block the adoption of encryption, or force platforms to collect even more data from children. collect to be enforced. Both bills have undergone significant changes since their original introduction to address these issues, but their critics have continued to withhold support.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Evan Greer, executive director of the digital freedoms group Fight for the Future, said her organization agreed that big tech companies are actively hurting children, but that “the bills we’re talking about today address all the problems we have.” are talking about worse, not better.”
“The bills we’re talking about today will make all the problems we’re talking about worse, not better.”
These criticisms have not slowed down efforts to pass them. A bipartisan group of two dozen senators supports KOSA, including powerful Senate leaders such as House Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, according to statements by Blumenthal reported by The Washington Post on Wednesday. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the EARN IT bill on Thursday, heading for a final vote on the floor. Committee members unanimously approved the bill, despite several Democratic members questioning whether it would threaten widespread adoption of encryption.
“I’m really concerned about this bill on issues of cybersecurity and how we can empower the government to do things to target disadvantaged groups for more harassment and discrimination,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) ahead of the vote on Thursday.
Senator Jon Ossoff (D-GA) echoed similar sentiments. “It is important that in drafting this legislation we do not inadvertently cause significant damage to the basic architecture of cybersecurity, which relies on encryption technology,” he said.
In his last two State of the Union addresses, President Joe Biden has called on Congress to enact stronger online privacy protections for children. In particular, he demanded new rules prohibiting tech companies from collecting data from children and subjecting them to targeted advertising.
But as Biden’s 2024 re-election campaign progresses, the administration is losing valuable time to deliver on these demands.
Unlike Congress, regulators such as the Federal Trade Commission can often take swift action to resolve unresolved privacy issues. On Wednesday, the agency proposed changes to a 2020 privacy order with Facebook that would ban Meta platforms, including Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus, from monetizing the data they collect from users under the age of 18. new products, services or updates to existing ones without the approval of an independent privacy reviewer.
The proposal comes after an FTC review found that Meta had violated the 2020 order and COPPA by misleading parents that the Messenger Kids service prevented children from using it to chat with people their parents hadn’t approved.
The order is still in its early stages and Meta has a chance to respond. All three Democrats at the agency signed on to begin the process of rolling out these restrictions, but Commissioner Alvaro Bedoya questioned whether the FTC had the authority to make these changes under current law. It is unclear if all three will vote again to approve the final changes or when a vote will be held.
While the Senate seems focused on quickly passing new child protection measures, getting one of these measures through the House may be their biggest challenge. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and his caucus are more focused on the current debt ceiling crisis than on children’s privacy. Even House Democrats on committees like the Energy and Commerce Committee are becoming increasingly aggressive when it comes to national privacy protections for everyone, not just minors. But with 2024 on Biden’s neck, it could push the administration to act before November.