Senate Weighs Bill Designed to Protect Children Online

Members of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection introduced a new bill last week to protect Internet users who are 16 or younger. It would apply to online platforms that are reasonably likely to be used by people in this age group, regardless of platform size. If it becomes a law, the bill would require platforms to provide certain settings that children and parents could easily access. Among other things, parents could limit the time that their children spend online and the data that can be collected on them, as well as opting out of algorithmic recommendations systems based on the data of children. Platforms also would need to provide settings that would allow children and parents to restrict the ability of other people to find children online.

While these settings could be adjusted, the platforms would need to set their defaults to the most restrictive settings. They also could not overtly encourage children to reduce or remove the restrictions. To provide transparency, the law would require platforms to release annual reports to the public regarding the risks of harm to children who use their services. These reports would provide information gathered through an independent audit by a third party.

Monitoring and enforcement activities would involve multiple federal agencies. The bill directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to analyze how platforms can effectively verify the ages of their users. Researchers approved by the NTIA would review data provided by the platforms to research the risks that children face online. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission would develop guidelines for platforms on conducting market-focused and product-focused research on children. The FTC and state attorneys general would collaborate on enforcing the law.

The chair of the subcommittee compared the bill to product safety laws, which currently lack a parallel in the Internet sector. However, the implementation of similar standards in Europe encouraged him to propose the bill. The chair acknowledged that major online platforms typically have resisted government efforts to limit their activities, but he stated his willingness to engage in dialogue with them. In addition, the law would allow tech representatives to join a council convened by the Commerce secretary that would help the government decide how to implement the law. Parents, industry experts, and enforcement officials also would play a role in this council.

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