Nov 16, 2022 - Technology

Kids' privacy online gets yearend push in Congress

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Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Lawmakers from both parties who back stricter rules for handling kids' data and accounts online see an opening in the last lame-duck weeks of this Congress.

Why it matters: Passing a national online consumer privacy bill continues to be out of Congress' reach, but protecting young people online has been one of the few areas in recent decades where Congress has been able to pass new tech regulations.

Driving the news: The two laws best positioned to get rolled into big year-end legislative packages, according to advocates and lawmakers, are:

  • The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which would require platforms to guard kids from harmful content using new features and safeguards and to make privacy settings "on" by default for children. The law also mandates privacy audits and more transparency about privacy policies.
  • The Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, which bans marketing to minors without their consent. It also extends some privacy protections online that now only cover children through age 12 so that they continue through age 16.

The big picture: Many legislators have promoted comprehensive online privacy proposals for years now, only to be tripped up by disagreements over whether such a law should pre-empt state efforts and whether individuals could sue for violations of it.

  • Tech bills that focus on kids have had a little more luck getting to the President's desk.
  • Case in point: A number of Democrats and Republicans have long sought to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech platforms from liability for the content their users post. But the only exception to Section 230 that Congress has ever approved was a 2018 bill meant to combat online sex trafficking of minors.

What they're saying: Senate leadership is pushing to make these bills a priority, including the chair of the Senate Commerce committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

  • "Senator Cantwell is meeting with families this week and supports any effort to get children’s online privacy passed during the lame duck," Tricia Enright, communications director of the Senate Commerce committee, told Axios.
  • The likeliest path forward for the bills is for them to be added to the year-end defense or spending bill. "We're at a point where a combination of the victims, and the technology, make it absolutely mandatory we move forward," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the Kids Online Safety Act, told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
  • "I think it's going to move," Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, said this week at an event in Washington. "I think it could actually go — it's one of those very rare pieces of legislation that is getting bipartisan support."

Meanwhile, the issue of the safety of kids and teens online has been heating up across the globe, with efforts in the United Kingdom, Europe and in U.S. states like California.

  • Family members who hold social media partially responsible for the deaths of their teenage relatives have been on the Hill this week, urging lawmakers to pass KOSA.
  • "It would be irresponsible for Congress to close out this year without taking concrete action to protect kids online," childrens' online safety advocacy groups wrote in a letter to members of Congress this week.

The other side: As legislators roll out new bills on this issue, tech firms have responded with tighter controls for kids and teens and touted new safety features, saying they want to partner with parents to make safer experiences online.

  • But advocates say that even with all available social media parental controls turned on, and when parents stay involved in their kids' online lives, the children remain at risk.
  • "It is not my job as a grieving mother to look up these harmful videos and report them to the platforms," said Joann Bogard, a mother from Indiana who lost her child because of an online "choking" challenge and is working with Sens. Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), another sponsor of KOSA.
  • Talking to tech companies and trying to get policy changed has been a "brick wall," she said.

Yes, but: Senate Democrats have a big pile of competing priorities.

  • Members will be looking to attach many items to must-pass legislation, and floor time for individual votes will be at a minimum.
  • The office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not respond to a question about his position on passing the bills before Congress' session ends.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a fuller quotation from Bogard providing additional context.

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