Children's Advocates Seek Senate Vote On Bills To Regulate Social Media

Some advocates for children and teens are urging Senate leaders to hold a floor vote on two bills that could affect the content that young users can access online, as well as how their data is collected and harnessed.

Both measures -- the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (S. 1628) and the Kids Online Safety Act (S. 3663) -- advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee in July.

“Each bill has the potential to significantly improve young people’s wellbeing by transforming the digital environment for children and teens,” dozens of advocacy groups including Fairplay, Common Sense, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Eating Disorders Coalition, and Public Citizen said this week in a letter urging Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to bring the legislation to a floor vote.

The organizations add that the bills “would prevent online platforms from exploiting young users’ developmental vulnerabilities and targeting them in unfair and harmful ways.”

The Kids Online Safety Act, introduced earlier this year by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), would require web companies to act in the best interest of users under the age of 16.

Among other provisions, the bill would require online companies to take reasonable steps to "prevent and mitigate physical, mental, financial, developmental, or other material harms to minors" -- including mental health disorders, self-harm, suicide, eating disorders and substance use disorders.

Fairplay and other proponents say the bill aims to “hold social media companies accountable after their repeated failures to protect children and adolescents from the practices that make their platforms more harmful.”

The organizations add: “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.”

But critics of the Kids Online Safety Act say the bill is problematic, and could result in teens being deprived of information.

The bill "provides an avenue of attack from ideologues using the legal system to go after marginalized communities," Matthew Lane, senior director at InSight Public Affairs, writes in a Techdirt post.

"Being trans has been called a mental health disorder, and this bill says platforms are required to protect minors from that," he writes.

He adds that information about how to receive a safe abortion could also swept into a ban on self-harm.

The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, introduced last year by Senators Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), would prohibit websites and apps from collecting personal information -- including data stored on cookies, device identifiers and other pseudonymous information used for ad targeting -- from teens between the ages of 13 and 15, without first obtaining their explicit consent.

That bill would also ban targeted marketing to children younger than 13, and would require tech companies to allow users to delete personal information from users under the age of 17.

Current federal law prohibits websites and apps from knowingly collecting personal information from children under 13 without parental consent.

The proposed updated bill would also impose liability if websites and apps have “constructive knowledge” (meaning they should know) that their products are used by children under 13, but collect data anyway.

Fairplay and the other groups also wrote to leaders of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, urging them to advance a companion bill to the Kids Online Safety Act.

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