Efforts to protect kids online gain bipartisan momentum

A 1998 law aimed at protecting children online could be headed for an overhaul, and Silicon Valley will be watching intently

A child attends an online class at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA during the Covid-19 pandemic in February in Los Angeles.  (AFP via Getty Images)
A child attends an online class at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA during the Covid-19 pandemic in February in Los Angeles. (AFP via Getty Images)
Posted May 25, 2021 at 6:30am

Bipartisan momentum is building behind proposals to protect kids when they’re online as lawmakers at both ends of the Capitol push measures to update child privacy laws and hold social media companies liable for content posted on their platforms.

Growing support for such measures is part of a notable new trend in Washington, as Democrats and Republicans who spent much of the past four years disagreeing over how to regulate companies such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and TikTok have begun to coalesce around legislative proposals that prioritize children.

[Kids emerge as bipartisan bridge to take on social media giants]

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“As children spend drastically more time online, the tech platforms really have become a perilous minefield for many of them,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Judiciary and Commerce committees and prominent social media critic, said at a hearing last week.

One of these bipartisan efforts is a wide-ranging proposal introduced earlier  this  month to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 — known as COPPA, and still the legal standard for kids on the internet today. The proposal is by Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., who helped write the law as a member of the House, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

The Markey-Cassidy update to the law would raise the age prohibition on collection of personal data from 13 to 15, ban the use of advertising targeted at children and create a mechanism for allowing consumers to require platforms to delete personal information about a child or teenager.

“Big Tech has a voracious appetite for kids’ attention and data, and these companies have no problem prioritizing their own profits over children and teens’ right to privacy,” Markey said in a statement. “It’s time for Congress to swiftly put in place strict safeguards that stop these powerful platforms from tracking young people at every turn in the online ecosystem.”

Children’s advocates say the update would bring the law, enacted during Silicon Valley’s nascency, into the 21st century.

“Many of today’s state-of-the-art practices used to target young people are manipulative and unfair,” Katharina Kopp, the policy director at the Center for Digital Democracy, said in a statement. “While COPPA has provided limited safeguards for the youngest children, this significant legislation will go much further. It will end the very worst forms of predatory advertising for the youngest children and expand protections to include young adolescents.”

Jim Steyer, a critic of social media companies who is CEO of Common Sense Media, a national child advocacy nonprofit, believes that if Congress can pass the COPPA update, it would pave the way for other efforts to regulate technology companies by focusing on kids.

“The key players in the White House, the key players in Congress know that the kids piece of this is pretty much of a no-brainer,” Steyer told CQ Roll Call. “You can sense that the tech industry knows significant changes are coming.”

Markey and Blumenthal are both co-sponsors of separate legislation introduced last month by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who also chairs the Judiciary Committee, that would allow individuals to require platforms to delete data gathered on them before they were 13 years old.

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“Every day, internet companies collect reams of personal data on Americans, including kids. But we cannot expect children to fully understand the consequences of their internet use and this collection process,” Durbin said in late April. “Kids deserve, I believe, a chance to request a clean slate once they are old enough to appreciate the nature of internet data collection.”

Another effort is focused on studying how social media platforms affect the mental health and development of children. Bicameral, bipartisan legislation introduced in March would authorize $95 million over five years for the National Institutes of Health to research how technology affects the cognitive, physical and socio-emotional development of children.

The bipartisan rush to address the plight of children online has increased since March, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed in testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is building a version of its platform specifically for children under the age of 13. 

Zuckerberg said the app would have “broadly positive” effects for kids and that the company was committed to making it safe for children. But opposition to the plan has been nearly universal among lawmakers, state attorneys general and child advocates. At last week’s hearing, Blumenthal said the company provided “woefully inadequate answers” to his questions about the product.

“We must stop these business practices, corporate negligence and commercial exploitation of children that now exists online,” he said. 

Blumenthal is one of several social media critics in Congress who believe that online companies will not comply with child privacy and other laws until they face serious enough legal repercussions for not doing so. He favors altering a 1996 law known as Section 230, which protects online companies from lawsuits related to content posted on their platforms, to hold companies more accountable for the spread of content harmful to children.

“Eventually, the tech platforms must be held accountable. They must bear liability for criminal and perhaps civil law,” he said last week. “The cutbacks in Section 230 immunity, carefully tailored to meet the needs of … children, offer a very important path forward.”