A group of US senators has revealed a bipartisan bill that would require social media platforms to verify users’ ages, stop anyone under 13 years of age from signing up, and set up special rules for minors over 13. It would also require the government to test out a voluntary nationwide verification system that would use official records and IDs to check people’s ages online.
The bill, the “Protecting Kids on Social Media Act,” was introduced by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Chris Murphy (D-CT), and Katie Britt (R-AL) on Wednesday. It’s designed to protect younger users from things like social media addiction, but it would also require a sweeping reevaluation of how adults and children operate online.
There are carveouts for some types of services
If passed, the bill would apply to platforms that offer services in the US and let users publish text, images, and videos. However, there are numerous carveouts for services that offer things like videoconferencing, cloud storage, and “crowd-sourced content for reference guides” (read: Wikipedia). Platforms that aren’t exempted would have to take “reasonable steps” to confirm a user’s age, “taking into account existing age verification technologies” and going beyond simply checking a box that says you’re over 18.
Users under 13 — who are already theoretically banned from many social media platforms — would not be allowed to create accounts under the rule. For older minors, social media platforms wouldn’t be able to use personal data for algorithmic recommendation systems, though platforms can suggest content or advertising “based on context where the information or advertising is related to the content being viewed by the individual.” Sites will also need a mechanism that lets parents or guardians give consent for their kids to use the platforms.
Any infractions would be treated as violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which could come with stringent penalties.
The bill doesn’t require any specific age verification method, and it says it shouldn’t be construed to “require users to provide government-issued identification for age verification.” But in its most unusual provision, it would require the Secretary of Commerce to test a program doing just that. No later than two years after the bill goes into effect, the secretary of commerce would need to make a pilot program that would let people obtain a “secure digital identification credential” by uploading copies of IDs or validating identity information shared against electronic government documentation.
The credential isn’t supposed to pass any private information to the social networks or keep records of where users have verified their identity, though the bill does allow for the pilot program to keep “aggregate data that is anonymized so that it cannot be linked to individual users.” (This seems somewhat similar to Louisiana’s law that requires a government ID to access adult websites.) Individuals and social media platforms won’t be required to participate in the program.
Some have concerns with the bill as it’s currently written. “Being a parent in the twenty-first century is hard, but inserting the government between parents and their teens is the wrong approach,” NetChoice VP and general counsel Carl Szabo said in a statement. “Congress must look for solutions to address the concerns raised by social media companies, parents and teens, rather than infringing Americans’ constitutionally-protected rights and violating their privacy.”
This new bill echoes laws already enacted in some states. Utah’s governor signed controversial laws requiring parental consent for users under 18 to use social media in March. Arkansas’ governor signed a law requiring parental consent for underage users just a few weeks later, but it exempts most social media platforms.