Senate panel turns to kids’ online safety

Two bills that would revamp how tech companies cater to and obtain data from young users will be in the spotlight Wednesday as a Senate panel debates how to update laws designed before the rise of social media.The markup has been long awaited by critics who say the existing regulations are no longer adequate for a generation raised on the internet. Support for the issue has snowballed since a Facebook whistleblower leaked bombshell internal documents last year.  

The Senate Commerce Committee is slated to discuss two bipartisan pieces of legislation that, taken together, would provide stricter regulations for how online platforms operate for children and teens. In part, the proposals would bring the U.S. closer to the standards put in place by other countries.  

“We have been saying for a while now that children need both better privacy protections, including privacy protections for teens for the first time, and they need to be protected against manipulative and harmful design that keeps them online too long and exposes them to harmful content. So these bills really work well together,” said Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, a group that advocates for children’s and teen’s online safety.  

The bills before the committee are the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA 2.0, and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).  

The COPPA 2.0 legislation, led by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), would update the 1998 law, authored by then-Rep. Markey, that tackles the data social media giants collect from young people. 

The bill would extend protections to minors ages 12 to 16, who are not protected by current COPPA standards. It would also ban targeted marketing to minors without getting consent.  

“Big Tech sees our kids’ data as dollar signs, and they use the profits they squeeze out of users with their predatory practices to bankroll industry lobbyists who help them evade accountability and obstruct our efforts to enact online privacy safeguards. For more than a decade, I’ve introduced legislation to update children’s privacy protections, and we’re closer now than we’ve ever been,” Markey said in a statement.  

“If we can’t protect every American online right now, I’m calling on my colleagues in the Senate to at least step up to protect our children,” he added.  

The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.).  

According to Markey’s office, the bill is expected to advance through the committee with strong bipartisan support.  

There appears to be an appetite for Congress to take on the issue of kids’ online safety, which has become a rare unifying topic in the chamber that’s often neatly split down party lines.  

The issue gained steam over the past year following the release of documents from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. The documents, including internal Facebook research that showed the negative effects of Instagram particularly on teen girls, as well as Haugen’s testimony before Congress, ramped up calls for new regulation to tackle the industry’s impact on kids.  

“We wouldn’t be at this point if not for Frances Haugen’s courageous decision to leak those documents,” Golin said.  

“I think that there are many in Congress who would prefer not to get involved and let the companies self-regulate. And I think what those documents made clear was that the business model and the culture, within Meta at least, was so antithetical to self-regulation and protecting children that we needed regulation,” he said.  

While Markey’s COPPA update largely tackles issues related to data collection, KOSA aims to address the design of platforms and how they operate for young users.  

The bill would create a duty for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harm to minors, including content promoting self-harm, suicide, eating disorders and substance abuse. The bill would also require platforms to perform an annual independent audit assessing risks to minors and their compliance with the law.  

It would also boost safeguards by requiring platforms to put the strictest privacy settings in place as the default setting for minors. The legislation would also require platforms to give kids the option to disable addictive product features and opt out of algorithmic recommendations.  

KOSA is led by Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and has three co-sponsors on each side of the aisle: Markey, Cassidy, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).  

“I’m glad this legislation is finally one step closer to getting across the finish line,” Blackburn said in a statement last week, when the markup was announced. “Each day that we wait to put this bill on the books, is another day that children continue to be victims of big tech. I appreciate Senator Blumenthal’s work on this important effort.” 

Although Haugen’s documents and testimony ignited pressure in Congress, lawmakers have questioned companies beyond Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram. The Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee held a series of hearings on kids’ safety, including a hearing to question executives from TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube over their policies around kids’ safety.  

Tech companies have defended their policies in place to protect young users. Facebook pushed back hard on the reports about documents Haugen released, saying at the time that the research was being mischaracterized.  

But tech and kids safety advocates said the hearings and mounting research has highlighted the need for Congress to take action.  

More than 90 advocacy groups, including Fairplay, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Digital Democracy, sent a letter to members of the Senate Commerce Committee Monday urging them to advance both bills at Wednesday’s markup.  

“The enormity of the youth mental health crisis needs to be addressed as the very real harms of social media are impacting our children today. Taken together, the Kids Online Safety Act and the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act would prevent online platforms from exploiting young users’ developmental vulnerabilities and targeting them in unfair and harmful ways,” they wrote.