Kids' privacy online gets yearend push in Congress

by Lindsey Francy Nov 16, 2022 News
Illustration of a padlock with googly eyes

Axios/Natalie Peeples is the illustration.

The last few weeks of this Congress will see an opening for stricter rules for handling children's data and online accounts.

Congress doesn't have the power to pass a national online consumer privacy bill, but protecting young people online is one of the few areas where Congress has been able to pass new tech regulations.

The two laws that are most likely to get rolled into big year-end legislative packages are:

  • The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which would require platforms to guard kids from harmful content using new features and safeguards and to make privacy settings "on" by default for children. The law also mandates privacy audits and more transparency about privacy policies.
  • The Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, which bans marketing to minors without their consent. It also extends some privacy protections online that now only cover children through age 12 so that they continue through age 16.

Legislators have promoted comprehensive online privacy proposals for years, only to be tripped up by disagreements over whether such a law should pre-empt state efforts and whether individuals could be sued for violating it.

  • Tech bills that focus on kids have had a little more luck getting to the President's desk.
  • Case in point: A number of Democrats and Republicans have long sought to modify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech platforms from liability for the content their users post. But the only exception to Section 230 that Congress has ever approved was a 2018 bill meant to combat online sex trafficking of minors.

The chair of the Senate Commerce committee is pushing for these bills to be a priority.

  • "Senator Cantwell is meeting with families this week and supports any effort to get children’s online privacy passed during the lame duck," Tricia Enright, communications director of the Senate Commerce committee, told Axios.
  • The likeliest path forward for the bills is for them to be added to the year-end defense or spending bill. "We're at a point where a combination of the victims, and the technology, make it absolutely mandatory we move forward," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the Kids Online Safety Act, told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
  • "I think it's going to move," Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, said this week at an event in Washington. "I think it could actually go — it's one of those very rare pieces of legislation that is getting bipartisan support."

The issue of the safety of kids and teens online has been heating up across the globe, with efforts in the United Kingdom, Europe and in the U.S.

  • Family members who hold social media partially responsible for the deaths of their teenage relatives have been on the Hill this week, urging lawmakers to pass KOSA.
  • "It would be irresponsible for Congress to close out this year without taking concrete action to protect kids online," childrens' online safety advocacy groups wrote in a letter to members of Congress this week.

Tech firms have responded with tighter controls for kids and teens and new safety features as legislators roll out new bills on this issue.

  • But advocates say that even with all available social media parental controls turned on, and when parents stay involved in their kids' online lives, the children remain at risk.
  • "That is not my job as a grieving mother," said Joann Bogard, a mother from Indiana who lost her child because of an online "choking" challenge and is working with Sens. Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), another sponsor of KOSA.
  • Talking to tech companies and trying to get policy changed has been a "brick wall," she said.

Senate Democrats have a lot of different priorities.

  • Members will be looking to attach many items to must-pass legislation, and floor time for individual votes will be at a minimum.
  • The office of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not respond to a question about his position on passing the bills before Congress' session ends.