Sep 16, 2022 - Technology

California's new age rules for sites and apps raise a ruckus

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

California's new law aimed at improving online privacy and safety for children has the industry on edge and critics warning of disruptions to the internet — but advocates say most users won't see big changes.

Why it matters: The California law mirrors a U.K. standard that prompted some changes by Big Tech companies but did not drastically alter the online landscape.

Driving the news The bipartisan California Age Appropriate Design Code Act, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday, requires online platforms to consider the best interest of users under 18 when designing their services.

  • Sites that are likely to be accessed by children and teens will be prohibited from using their personal information, collecting location data or profiling them by default.
  • Websites and apps must estimate the range of age of their user population to determine whether they are likely to be accessed by teens and kids, and implement measures to protect those users.

What's happening: The age estimation requirement has sparked an outcry that the law will alter how users navigate the web by forcing them to prove their age before accessing a site.

  • This could mean websites or apps will require users to upload government IDs or require facial scans to prove ages, Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University Law School and critic of the measure, told Axios.
  • He called the law a "neutron bomb" for the internet and said it will lead to more invasive practices under the guise of protecting children.
  • "This is not just going to affect kids — it affects every user, adult or kid," Goldman told Axios. "We all are going to have to relearn how to use the internet."

Yes, but: Instagram, YouTube, Meta and TikTok made changes to their services to make teenage users' experiences more private and safer ahead of the U.K.'s Age Appropriate Design Code taking effect last year.

  • Instagram in August announced it would put all new users under 16 into its most restrictive content setting and prompt existing users in that age group to apply that setting, which aims to limit access to sensitive content.

A Meta spokesperson called the California law an "important development" but noted the company still has concerns about some of the provisions.

  • "We believe young people should have consistent protections across all apps and online services they use, which is why we support clear industry standards in this area," the Meta spokesperson said in a statement.

Tech industry association TechNet opposes the measure, in part because lawmakers did not agree to lower the age threshold to under 16, Dylan Hoffman, TechNet executive director for California and the Southwest, told Axios.

  • He predicted companies will vary in how they implement the age estimation requirement.
  • "Maybe the worst case scenario is requiring additional personal information in order to verify you are as old as you say you are," Hoffman said. "But I think also just as concerning is what type of barriers it's putting in place to the openness of the internet, not just for kids but adults, too. "

The other side: Supporters say the age estimation requirement doesn't mean users will have to share their ages, and that sites that are already collecting data likely know the age of their users.

  • "If your website is safe for everyone, you don't have to age estimate," Nichole Rocha, head of U.S. Affairs for 5Rights Foundation, a supporter of the legislation, told Axios.
  • "But if there are data processing practices that could result in harm to kids, you would be expected to do an impact assessment and figure out how you can mitigate the risk to users."

What they're saying: Both Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group, and NetChoice, a tech association, argue that the law is unconstitutional because it infringes on the editorial rights of websites and apps.

The California measure takes effect in 2024, and gives companies 90 days to "cure" their sites of violations before incurring any fines.

  • "The bill focuses on establishing a floor of safety and security for young people," Nicole Gill, co-founder and executive director of Accountable Tech, which supports the legislation, told Axios.
  • A wide swath" of sites and apps "just isn't going to fall under that," she says, because they don't engage in practices the bill prohibits deploying for child users, such as targeted advertising or storing location data.

What they're saying: "The point of the bill is not to make Sesame Street safer," Rocha told Axios. "It is to make the places where youth and teens actually hang out online more safe."

Go deeper