Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios
Lawmakers from both parties, who support stricter rules for handling children’s online data and accounts, see an opening in the final weeks of this Congress.
Why it matters: Passing a national online consumer privacy bill remains out of reach for Congress, but protecting young people online has been one of the few areas in recent decades where Congress has been able to pass new technical regulations.
News management: According to advocates and lawmakers, the two bills best suited for inclusion in major year-end legislative packages are:
- The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which requires platforms to protect children from harmful content with new features and safety measures, and to enable default privacy settings for children. The law also provides for privacy audits and greater transparency of privacy policies.
- The Children and Teens Online Privacy Act, which prohibits advertising to minors without their consent. It also extends some online privacy protections that now only cover children under 12 to continue until they are 16.
The big picture: Many lawmakers have pushed for comprehensive online privacy proposals over the years, but have been dogged by disagreements over whether such a law should preempt state efforts and whether individuals can sue for violations.
- Tech bills that target kids have a little more luck making it to the president’s desk.
- Case in point: A number of Democrats and Republicans have long sought to change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects technology platforms from liability for the content their users post. But the only exception to Section 230 that Congress ever approved was a 2018 bill aimed at combating the online sex trafficking of minors.
What they say: Senate leadership is pushing to make these bills a priority, including the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington).
- “Senator Cantwell will meet with families this week and supports any effort to protect children’s online privacy during the lame duck,” Tricia Enright, communications director for the Senate Commerce Committee, told Axios.
- The most likely path forward for the bills is to add them to a defense or spending bill at the end of the year. “We’re at a point where the combination of victims and technology makes it absolutely imperative that we move forward,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), sponsor of the Children’s Online Safety Act, told reporters. Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
- “I think that’s going to change,” Stephen Balkham, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, said at an event in Washington this week. “I think it could really go away — it’s one of those very rare pieces of legislation that gets bipartisan support.”
Meanwhile, The issue of online safety for children and teenagers is growing worldwide, with efforts being made in the United Kingdom, Europe and US states such as California.
- Family members who hold social media partly responsible for the deaths of their underage relatives took to the Hill this week to urge lawmakers to pass KOSA.
- “It would be irresponsible for Congress to close out this year without taking concrete steps to protect children online,” online children’s rights groups wrote in a letter to members of Congress this week.
On the other hand: As lawmakers introduce new bills on the issue, tech firms have responded with increased controls for children and teens and touted new safety features, saying they want to work with parents to make the Internet safer.
- But advocates say that even when parental controls are enabled on all available social networks, and when parents continue to be involved in their children’s lives online, children remain at risk.
- “It’s not my job as a grieving mother to seek out these harmful videos and report them on platforms,” said Joanne Bogard, an Indiana mother who lost her child to an online choking challenge and works with Sens. Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenni), another KOSA sponsor.
- Communicating with tech companies and trying to change policy has been a “brick wall,” she said.
Yes but: Senate Democrats have a big pile of competing priorities.
- Members will try to add many items to the legislation that needs to be passed, and time for individual voting will be minimal.
- Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (DNY) office did not respond to questions about his position on passing the bills until the end of the congressional session.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a fuller quote from Bogard with additional context.