child works on laptop

A child sits in front of her computer as she does school work at her home on September 27, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images)

'Critical' Online Privacy Protections for Children Advance to Senate Floor Vote

"For far too long, Big Tech has been allowed to regulate itself at great expense to the health and well-being of young Americans," said the head of the advocacy group Fairplay.

A key U.S. Senate panel on Wednesday took what one leading child advocate called "an important step toward creating a safer and less exploitative internet for children and teens."

"We are hopeful that lawmakers are ready to do what's needed to protect young people from the unacceptable risks they face online every day in this country."

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation advanced two pieces of legislation to the floor: the Kids Online Safety Act (S. 3663) and Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act (S. 1628), also known as KOSA and COPPA 2.0.

While some privacy advocates have raised serious concerns about KOSA, progressive proponents like Fairplay executive director Josh Golin said that taken together, the bills "will provide critical privacy protections for children and teens, limit surveillance advertising, and require platforms to prioritize young people's best interests.

"We urge Congress to pass these bills into law--for far too long, Big Tech has been allowed to regulate itself at great expense to the health and well-being of young Americans," he added, a call echoed by other groups, from the American Academy of Pediatrics to Center for Digital Democracy.

S. Bryn Austin, director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders (STRIPED) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Boston Children's Hospital, also welcomed the development, saying that "we are hopeful that lawmakers are ready to do what's needed to protect young people from the unacceptable risks they face online every day in this country, but we know there is a long road ahead and we will keep fighting for common-sense oversight and protections on social media till the job is done."

All four organizations signed on to a Monday letter from over 100 groups that urged the committee to advance both bills and highlighted that "there has been no significant federal legislation to protect children and adolescents online since the passage of COPPA in 1998--long before smartphones and platforms like Facebook and YouTube even existed."

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who authored the original Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) as a congressman over two decades ago, is spearheading the effort to pass the updated legislation, joined by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.).

"Protecting kids online has long been a priority of mine," Markey said after the panel's "historic" vote on COPPA 2.0. "But so much has changed since 1998. The threats to kids' privacy and well-being are more pressing than ever. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that today, too many online platforms have an insatiable appetite for young people's data and attention."

"Too many online platforms are built on a business model that seeks to hook consumers at a young age by any means necessary," he continued. "Too many online platforms amass troves of kids' personal information to power black box algorithms that amplify toxic content, harming users' mental and physical well-being every day. It's time to address these issues head-on."

As Markey's office summarized Wednesday, COPPA 2.0 would:

  • Prohibit internet companies from collecting personal information from anyone 13 to 16 years old without the user's consent;
  • Ban targeted marketing to children;
  • Create an online "Eraser Button" by requiring companies to permit users to eliminate personal information from a child or teen;
  • Implement a "Digital Marketing Bill of Rights for Minors" that limits the collection of personal information from young users; and
  • Establish a first-of-its-kind Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which will be responsible for addressing the privacy of children and minors and marketing directed at children and minors.

Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) are leading KOSA--which, according to its sponsors, not only "provides families with the tools, safeguards, and transparency they need to protect against threats to children's health and well-being online," but also "creates accountability for social media's harms" and "opens up black box algorithms."

While the letter from more than 100 advocates welcomed KOSA's efforts to hold Big Tech accountable "after their repeated failures to protect children and adolescents from the practices that make their platforms more harmful," some critics, such as Jason Kelley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have suggested that it "would greatly endanger the rights, and safety, of young people online."

Fight for the Future director Evan Greer has also highlighted Kelley's detailed critique from late March and said last week that "KOSA is a bad bill and would be a disaster, especially for LGBTQ+ youth"--a concern that other policy experts have shared.

As Kelley explained:

The parental controls would in effect require a vast number of online platforms to create systems for parents to spy on--and control--the conversations young people are able to have online, and require those systems be turned on by default. It would also likely result in further tracking of all users.

And in order to avoid liability for causing the listed harms, nearly every online platform would hide or remove huge swaths of content. And because each of the listed areas of concern involves significant gray areas, the platforms will over-censor to attempt to steer clear of the new liability risks.

Zamaan Qureshi, a Markey intern who also works for the Real Facebook Oversight Board, tweeted Wednesday that "more still needs to be done on KOSA" along with Kelley's piece.

"While there are kinks worth debating and ironing out, we can still recognize the historic nature of these bills," Qureshi said, adding that "we would not have gotten here without the necessary disclosures and testimony" from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

In an early October "60 Minutes" interview and congressional testimony, Haugen described Facebook--which changed the name of its parent company to Meta a few weeks later--as a threat to children and American democracy.

Haugen told senators that "the company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer, but won't make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people."

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