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Senate panel advances bills to childproof the internet

Senate panel advances bills to childproof the internet

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Critics say there are still problems to work out before they’re ever made law.

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Congress is closer than ever to passing a pair of bills to childproof the internet after lawmakers voted to send them to the floor Thursday.

The bills — the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and COPPA 2.0 — were approved by the Senate Commerce Committee Thursday by a unanimous voice vote. Both pieces of legislation aim to address an ongoing mental health crisis amongst young people that some lawmakers blame social media for intensifying. But critics of the bills have long argued that they have the potential to cause more harm than good, like forcing social media platforms to collect more user information to properly enforce Congress’ rules.  

In his past two State of the Union addresses, President Joe Biden has insisted that Congress enact stronger online privacy protections for children. Taking a cue from the president in recent years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have rolled out legislation to address his concerns. Obviously, the two bills passed Thursday have come out on top.

KOSA is supposed to establish a new legal standard for the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general, allowing them to police companies that fail to prevent kids from seeing harmful content on their platforms. The authors of the bills, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), have said the bill keeps kids from seeing content that glamorizes eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and gambling. It would also ban kids 13 and under from using social media and require companies to acquire parental consent before allowing children under 17 to use their platforms.

At Thursday’s markup, Blackburn proposed an amendment to remedy some of the concerns raised by digital rights groups, mainly language requiring platforms to verify the age of their users. Lawmakers approved those changes along with the bill, but the groups fear that platforms would still need to collect more data on all users to live up to the bill’s other rules.

“This is essentially meaningless”

“This is essentially meaningless if the very nature of the bill requires online services to treat minors differently from adult users. Doing so would require online services to know the ages of their users, adults and children alike,” Aliya Bhatia, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a blog post earlier this week. 

Digital rights advocates have also suggested that KOSA could prevent LGBTQIA+ teens from finding the resources they may need online without coming out to their parents due to the parental consent requirements of the bill.

At the top of Thursday’s markup, Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said that the committee plans to “continue to work with” critics on those issues.

The other bill lawmakers approved, COPPA 2.0, raises the age of protection under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act from 13 to 16 years of age, along with similar age-gating restrictions. It also bans platforms from targeting ads to kids.

The tech trade group NetChoice issued a scathing statement on the bills Thursday.

“When it comes to determining the best way to help kids and teens use the internet, parents and guardians should be making those decisions, not the government,” Carl Szabo, NetChoice vice president and general counsel, said. “Rather than violating free speech rights and handing parenting over to bureaucrats, we should empower law enforcement with the resources necessary to do its job to arrest and convict bad actors committing online crimes against children.”