By Natalie Mojica
On Feb.16th, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced their bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act. The bill is designed to mitigate the harmful content children are exposed to on the internet.
The act would require online platforms like Facebook to refrain from promoting dangerous behavior. In addition, it gives parents of children under 16 the tools to protect them, like the ability to ban certain content and limit children’s online screen time. Another highlight of the act is requiring platforms to publish annual reports about their potential risks to minors.
“This measure makes kids’ safety an internet priority,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “Big Tech has brazenly failed children and betrayed its trust, putting profits above safety. […] The Kids Online Safety Act would finally give kids and their parents the tools and safeguards they need to protect against toxic content—and hold Big Tech accountable for deeply dangerous algorithms.”
Sen. Blumenthal referred to the thousands of documents the subcommittee received from former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. The documents revealed that Facebook had extensive research on its platforms’ impact on children and found conclusive results about the adverse effects on the mental health of teen girls, but still refused to make any significant changes.
Haugen was Facebook’s product manager for civic misinformation and testified before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection. Haugen said Facebook consistently chose profits over consumer safety and that its algorithm is designed to guide users towards high-engagement posts that are often damaging.
“We don’t agree with her characterization of the many issues she testified about,” Lena Pietsch, Facebook’s director of policy, responded. “Despite all this, we agree on one thing; it’s time to begin to create standard rules for the internet. It’s been 25 years since the rules for the internet have updated, and instead of expecting the industry to make societal decisions that belong to legislators, it is time for Congress to act.”
Sen. Blackburn echoed Sen. Blumenthal’s sentiment about how necessary it is to have a law that raises the standards for online platforms likely to be used by children.
“Protecting our kids and teens online is critically important, particularly since COVID increased our reliance on technology,” said Sen. Blackburn. “The Kids Online Safety Act will address those harms by setting necessary safety guide rails for online platforms to follow that will require transparency and give parents more peace of mind.”
While tech companies said they already comply with federal requirements to protect children, this bill would require online platforms to make the most effective version of these safeguards the default setting on their services. Although big tech is the target, this legislation would apply to any online platform “reasonably likely to be used” by kids younger than 16, like streaming services.
The bill would be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general. It would rely on a new council of parents, experts, tech representatives, and youth voices to advise implementing the law. Both senators are adamant about empowering children and parents to have a say in their families’ online activity for their health and safety.