Privacy Laws for Children Pass Out of Committee
WASHINGTON — Two new bills aiming to protect children’s privacy rights on the internet passed out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Wednesday.
Both bills passed through the committee and moved to a possible vote for the full Senate as privacy laws are picking up steam across Capitol Hill.
“Today’s bipartisan effort to expand online protections for children tells social media companies “enough is enough, stop targeting the children in our country. We are going to provide a bill of rights for them, otherwise, there is just going to be a continuation of the prioritization of growth of the business, of profits over the well-being of girls and boys in the United States of America,” Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said. “Today the internet is a 21st century child’s playground. We just can’t allow internet predators to be roaming that playground.”
Markey’s Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act that passed out of the committee Wednesday builds on his original 1998 legislation that prohibits companies from collecting data from children under 13 years old, instead expanding those protections to all minors. It also strictly bars targeted advertising to minors.
Earlier this year the Federal Trade Commission used its power from the original 1998 bill to stop online learning companies from collecting children’s data without parents’ permission, and the commission reminded companies that they cannot bar students from using those essential applications if they choose not to hand over that data.
Expanding protections to all children is expected to ease the burden of enforcement.
“This bill would close a loophole that would allow companies to abuse the data of children with little accountability, making it harder for the [Federal Trade Commission] to prove violations,” said Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
The Kids Online Safety Act cosponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that passed through committee Wednesday expands protections by creating a “toolbox” for parents to confront unhealthy online behaviors.
Over the past year, the committee has heard about the potential negative effects of social media on children including a rise of mental health issues ranging from eating disorders, suicidal thoughts to bullying. Multiple senators speaking about the bills Wednesday invoked the testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified last year about how Facebook’s algorithm, which controls what people see on their news feeds, amplifies some of these ills.
“One of the things we’ve learned from parents is that they want a toolkit to protect their kids online. Many of them did not realize what was happening until the pandemic hit and they began to see the enemy wasn’t always outside the home. Many times it was inside the four walls of their home and it was coming at their child through their device,” Blackburn said.
This bill requires social media companies to allow parents and children to opt out of algorithms and enable stronger security protections. It also requires social media companies to mitigate harm to minors and consistently study their platform’s effects.
“We’ve heard the harrowing accounts, not only in our hearings but in letters and calls we’ve received, about how Big Tech has essentially betrayed [our] trust using its black box algorithms to drive destructive content to children,” Blumenthal said.
And this bill takes “a profoundly important step in giving the public a chance to see how the algorithms work through access that’s given to experts and nonprofit groups,” he said, because it requires companies to give information about their algorithms to outside researchers.
Both bills passed out of committee with bipartisan support.
However, Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., declined to vote for the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act because he wants the focus on the American Data Privacy and Protection Act that passed with a wide bipartisan vote out of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce last week. It would do more to protect Americans of all ages because it doesn’t focus on a specific age range, he said.
“While no legislation is perfect, the [American Data Privacy and Protection Act] represents a bipartisan, bicameral compromise that I believe has the best chance of reaching the president’s desk by the end of the year,” Wicker said.